Washington. -- Special interests are threatened by President Clinton's attempt to curb the flood of private funds into political campaign chests. They spin a surprisingly thick web of defensive rationalizations. Here is an offering of responses:
"Campaign contributions buy only access, not votes." Given the very limited amount of time elected officials have to meet with their constituents, to be able to buy access will disadvantage all those who do not have deep pockets.
"Do you really believe that politicians would sell their votes for a mere $5,000, the maximum a political-action committee can give?" Special-interest groups can create as many PACs as they wish. For instance, the dairy industry had, at one point, 21 PACs. A PAC can give $5,000 for the primary and $5,000 for general elections. Twenty-one times $10,000 will pay a good part of one's campaigning costs. And, unlike solicitations from individuals, PAC money flows easily.
"Everyone has a PAC, so things even out." Actually, many corporations won't touch them. The National Asphalt Pavement Association abandoned theirs as unsavory. The more vulnerable members of society, the unemployed, the poor and the sick, have no PACs, or at best meager ones. The biggest PACs are those of the arms industry, bankers, real-estate lobbies, labor unions and the National Rifle Association. They often carry the day against the wishes of the un-PACed majority.
"Politicians first choose what to vote for on the basis of their convictions and then money flows to them." A "Public Citizen" study shows that politicians quite readily violate their "philosophy" to vote in ways that satisfy special-interest groups. Moreover, about 80 percent of the donors don't give a hoot about convictions; they want specific economic favors, from a tax loophole to a farm subsidy.
"Candidate X raised and spends more money then candidate Y and still lost the election. Money does not matter." While the money doesn't guarantee a victory, it greatly improves the odds for those candidates who can pay for public-opinion polls, focus groups, time on television, and so on.
"PACs are a form of political participation. To restrict them is undemocratic." Individuals who donate to PACs are not allowed to designate to whom the money goes. This is decided by small cliques of PAC managers, without consultation with the individual donors. Most PAC managers do not even inform their donors after the fact on whom their largess was bestowed. In short, PACs are about as democratic as voting blindfolded with some stranger marking the ballot.
"Money is speech. Prohibiting the rich from using it is unconstitutional." There is no hint in the Constitution that money is protected under the First or any other amendment or clause. To equate money with speech is akin to allowing one to bring megaphones to town-hall meetings to drown out all others.
It is a sign of the power of special interests that they can use their deep pockets not merely to sway politicians, but also to reward select individuals. In the coming debate about curbing campaign contributions, keep your eyes open and your wallet shut.
Amitai Etzioni's most recent book, "The Spirit of Community," elaborates the anti-PAC case. He wrote this commentary for the Christian Science Monitor.