WASHINGTON -- When Western Maryland Democrats unseated Rep. Beverly B. Byron last year, the seven-term incumbent wasn't the only one left in shock.
Her defeat also dealt a blow to Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which lost a friend in Congress. Mrs. Byron, who sat on a committee that oversees a range of energy issues, including nuclear energy, was a pro-industry vote that BG&E; and other electric power interests had come to rely on.
To make matters worse, from the utility's point of view, the man who upset Mrs. Byron in the March primary and the favorite to take her place, Del. Thomas Hattery, was regarded as an industry foe. His campaign manager was a lawyer on leave from the Maryland People's Counsel, an agency that often opposes rate increase requests by utilities and whose authority Mr. Hattery wanted to strengthen as a member of the state legislature.
But Mr. Hattery never made it to Congress, and the man who ultimately took Mrs. Byron's place -- 6th District Congressman Roscoe G.Bartlett -- appears to be every bit as good a friend to the power company as the woman he succeeded.
The story of how BG&E; successfully scrambled, through its political arm, to make up for the unexpected loss of an ally on Capitol Hill is a case study in the ways that special interests work to perpetuate their influence in Washington and why critics complain that political action committees (PACs) have a disproportionate influence on government.
Winning friends in Washington is what PACs have been about since they were started 50 years ago, by organized labor, as a way for small donors to pool their campaign contributions and elect candidates who shared their concerns.
BG&E;'s PAC, financed by 650 to 800 employees through voluntary payroll deductions, ranks 470th in size among the 3,052 PACs that gave $179 million to candidates for federal office in the 1991-1992 election cycle.
In advance of last year's Democratic primary, BG&E;'s PAC gave Mrs. Byron the maximum amount allowed by federal law: $5,000 (had she won the primary, the PAC could have donated another $5,000, for the general election). But when she lost, the PAC got behind Mr. Bartlett, the Republican candidate.
Mr. Bartlett had been so lightly regarded that he did not get a cent from PACs until Mrs. Byron's loss opened up the seat. Even then, the PAC money was slow to come in.
Most of it arrived in the last three months of the campaign, only after Mr. Bartlett was able to establish himself as a credible candidate with a chance of winning, said Stephen S. Lakin, a public affairs consultant and political fund-raiser hired by the Bartlett campaign.
BG&E;'s PAC gave him $5,500 during the campaign (the $5,000 maximum for the general election and $500 for the primary period, which already had passed). Company lobbyists worked to round up financial support from other utility PACs as well.
In the end, electric and gas utilities turned out to be the biggest special interest contributor to the Bartlett campaign. Besides the money he got from the BG&E; PAC, Mr. Bartlett got about $10,000, most delivered in the last six weeks of the campaign, from utility company PACs and three pro-business PACs to which BG&E;'s political action committee had made contributions.
Mr. Bartlett's election in November meant BG&E; had a new friend in Congress, and, perhaps to cement that friendship, the PAC gave Mr. Bartlett another $4,500 in December, a month after he won the congressional seat, to help pay campaign debts. That brought its donations to him for the 1992 election to the maximum $10,000.
Paulette Pidcock, BG&E;'s chief lobbyist here, acknowledges that the firm solicited support for Mr. Bartlett from other utility PACS, a routine Washington practice. Asked whether BG&E;'s chief interest was in seeing Mr. Bartlett get elected or in keeping Mr. Hattery out of Congress, she answered, "Let's put it positively. We were very interested in seeing Mr. Bartlett win that particular seat."
Mr. Bartlett finished the year with $87,000 in PAC contributions -- more than 20 percent of that from utility interests. (Mr. Hattery got $277,000 from PACs, much of that from organized labor and most of it after his primary victory over Mrs. Byron.)
Mr. Bartlett, asked what the Baltimore utility expects for the $10,000 contribution from its PAC, responded: "They hope that I'm going to do what I said I was going to do -- vote for less taxes, less government and less regulation."
Asked what PAC contributions get for BG&E;, Florence Beck Kurdle, chairman of the utility's PAC, responded, "Well, they don't get you votes. I think they're just one piece of building relationships."
Noting that campaigns are expensive, Ms. Kurdle said, "As long as that is the system, we participate in that system."
While most PAC critics are outsiders and challengers, most defenders are those who run the PACs and incumbents, especially House members who must finance campaigns every two years. That is one reason the House of Representatives is unlikely to agree to a recently passed Senate measure outlawing PACS, although some analysts believe Congress may reduce the maximum PAC contribution to $1,000 per election.
One recent convert to the anti-PAC cause is Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of Maryland, who said in April that he won't take money from PACs or contributions from outside his district, which lies largely on the Eastern Shore.
Political action committees "are made up of very powerful interest groups that want to influence members of Congress in a very narrow way," Mr. Gilchrest said. "They are the chief reason the average American voter feels so distant from their representatives, or so powerless to impact how government works."
Mr. Gilchrest didn't swear off PACs until he had survived a tough re-election campaign in November in which he accepted $95,000 from them. His opponent, Democratic incumbent Tom McMillen, got more than $700,000 in PAC money, including $9,950 from the BG&E; PAC.
Asked why he waited until after the election, Mr. Gilchrest said, "I'm also a realist. We knew we were up against big money."
Mr. McMillen was a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a key factor in the BG&E; committee's decision to support him so generously, said Ms. Kurdle, who also is vice president for development of Constellation Real Estate Group, Inc., a subsidiary of BG&E.;
"Mr. McMillen was active in offering amendments in committee for BG&E;" on a comprehensive energy bill last year, said Leon Lowry of Environmental Action, a watchdog group on energy issues.
The electric and gas utility lobby, which includes BG&E;, is a persuasive force on Capitol Hill. For example, the industry won key concessions from the House Ways and Means Committee this year on President Clinton's proposed BTU tax, then joined the successful effort to scuttle the tax in favor of a gasoline tax increase in the Senate version of the bill. Opponents of the BTU tax are now working to see that it does not end up in the final bill that emerges from a conference committee.
And last year, the industry fought hard and successfully for legislation that limited the licensing procedures for nuclear plants.
A study of the issue by U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a liberal organization critical of PAC influence on Congress, said of adoption of that legislation: "The nuclear power industry had achieved its most long-sought legislative goal: a reactor licensing process that essentially removed the public from effective participation and placed whatever participation was left where it could do no harm: in a process that guaranteed reactor licensing."
Utility PACs, like those in other industries, concentrate contributions on incumbent members of committees important to them. The BG&E; committee contributed to 10 Marylanders, eight of them incumbents, and to 60 non-Marylanders in 1991-1992, including 19 members of the House energy committee and another nine House members on other committees important to the company.
Most out-of-state candidates got $500 or less. The recipient of the largest amount -- $1,500 -- was Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who is a member of the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee and a favorite of the energy industry. Between 1985 and 1990, Mr. Murkowski received more than $120,000 from the energy industry, far more than he took in from any other special interest.
In a rare instance where the BG&E; PAC contributed to a challenger, it gave $500 to the Pennsylvania Republican who took on Rep. Peter Kostmayer, the interior subcommittee chairman who hadpushed for tougher nuclear plant licensing procedures.
Ms. Kurdle said Mr. Kostmayer was "generally unfavorable to nuclear power, particularly on low-level waste and licensing issues . . . [and] was also considered vulnerable."
The licensing legislation was so important to BG&E; that it was included in the PAC's rating of incumbents' voting records. Mrs. Byron was one of the six Marylanders -- all but Reps. Gilchrest and Benjamin L. Cardin -- who voted for the legislation.
Mrs. Byron's defeat in March 1992 did not end her relationship with BG&E.; In January, she was named to the utility's board of directors, a move that supplements her congressional pension of about $37,000 a year, according to the National Taxpayers Union, with an $18,000 annual retainer and an $800 fee every time she attends a board meeting -- meetings are held monthly -- and board committee meetings.
Asked if there is a perception problem in joining a board whose interests she supported in Congress, Mrs. Byron said, "none whatsoever."
"BG&E; felt I had expertise" that it could use, she said.
The former Armed Services subcommittee chairwoman said she was asked to join the boards of several defense contractors but turned them down because of the possibility of conflicts with her position on the Base Closure and Realignment Commission that wound up its work late last month.
Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington sees Mrs. Byron's position at BG&E; differently. "To the general public," he said, "it looks a little strange and makes people wonder how independent she was as a legislator," he said.
A PAC HELPS POLITICIANS
Maryland candidates for Congress whose campaigns received contributions from the BG&E; PAC, and the amounts they received, during 1991 and 1992. all recipients except Roscoe G. Bartlett and Albert R. Wynn were incumbents. Political action committees are permitted to give a candidate $5,000 for the primary and $5,000 for the general election.
The PAC rated incumbents based on eight votes in the House and six votes in the Senate. The ratings were not the only factors in determining the size of contributions. The thumbnail for each candidate is a summary of the PAC"s reasons for supporting the candidate. Assessments of candidates by Florence Beck Kurdle, chairman of the BG&E; PAC, are in quotation marks.