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Strong Fronts or Retirement Funds? : Shoo-Ins to Congress Still Build Big Cash Stockpiles

Times Staff Writer

Torrents of money, primarily from special-interest groups, have been sluicing into Rep. John D. Dingell’s reelection war chest, as if the powerful Michigan Democratic congressman were in the fight of his political life.

But in fact, Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has no Republican opponent this year. And in three decades in Congress, no one has run within a mile of him.

So why does Dingell keep on fattening his campaign treasury, whose latest reported balance was $282,000? Why did he recently accept $2,000 from the American Medical Assn., $2,500 from the Teamsters Union and $2,500 from RJR Nabisco, among many such gifts?

Indeed, why are numerous other House members and senators with no major opponents on the Nov. 8 ballot also building huge cash stockpiles? And why are political action committees--the money-giving arms of corporations, unions and other special interests--willing to contribute up to $10,000 apiece to these shoo-ins for reelection?

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“They’re payoffs, pure and simple,” Republican campaign consultant Eddie Mahe said. He charged that entrenched officeholders, most of whom are Democrats, are selling “access and favors” to the lobbyists who represent PACs.

Leon Billings, former director of the Democrats’ senatorial campaign committee, has a more benign explanation: “A lot of these people raise money because it’s there--it’s an addiction not punishable by death.”

And the officeholders themselves claim they are piling up dollars for perfectly logical reasons: to scare off strong challengers, to keep from being outspent by some future wealthy opponent, to prepare a bid for higher office and to channel funds to needy colleagues (who just might return the favor by voting to put the donors in leadership posts).

None of the “safe-seat” lawmakers admit to another possible motive: constructing a hefty retirement fund.

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A legal loophole permits those elected to Congress before 1980 to convert surplus campaign cash to personal use when they leave office. For example, after veteran Rep. John J. Duncan (R-Tenn.) died last summer, his wife and children inherited $604,000 in excess funds--and now his son, John Jr., who collected about $100,000 of that sum, is favored to win the seat next month.

Dingell, 62, who was first elected in 1955, defended the controversial loophole in an interview, although he gave no reason for his campaign war chest and said he had not decided what to do with it when he retired.

But he appeared irritated by a suggestion that his fund raising may be related to the loophole. “You’re a bright fellow,” he said, draping a long arm around a reporter’s shoulders, “but you’re a bit of a pain in the ass.”

Of 408 House members running for reelection, 74 are unopposed or face only minor-party candidates and independents in the general election, and none of them encountered more than token opposition in the primaries. At last count, these incumbents were sitting on $13.5 million in cash, after raising $8.6 million from individuals and $9.1 million from PACs during this election cycle.

Similarly, 10 of 27 incumbent senators up for reelection are generally considered sure winners, yet they have collected $20.6 million from individuals and $8.4 million from PACs since their last election 6 years ago. They recently had $11.7 million in the bank, according to a Times review of Federal Election Commission records.

Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), who has a $1.8-million campaign kitty despite an apparent “lock” on his seat, defended raising nearly $1.3 million from PACs, all of which have a vital interest in tax changes considered by his Senate Finance Committee.

“Because of TV, Senate campaigns are so volatile that anyone who assumes it’s over before Election Day does so at his peril,” he said. “And the cost of TV is so high, you have to raise money a long time in advance.”

Asked why it was necessary to raise more than $1 million from PACs for his easy-shot reelection, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) arched his eyebrows.

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“I raised that much PAC money?” he said. “Talk to my campaign manager.” He added: “I am not a millionaire. The real story is how can I run a Senate campaign in New York for $2 million when a House campaign in Orange County (California) cost $4 million?”

Actually, two Orange County elections, in which a total of about $2 million was spent by both candidates, involved hotly contested bids to unseat Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) in 1984 and 1986.

This year, Dornan raised $772,346.27 as of Sept. 30 compared to Democrat Jerry Yudelson’s $116,727. Only $16,350 of Dornan’s money came from PACs. Perceiving that Yudelson was not a serious threat, Dornan has spent nearly all of his money on “prospecting,” a term used by Dornan’s chief of staff, Brian Bennett, and other political pros to describe mass-mail solicitations that help identify donors who can be tapped in future political campaigns. Dornan ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1982, and political observers expect him to try again in 1990.

Dornan’s money came mostly from outside Orange County, from housewives, retirees and a wide range of national conservative groups. According to campaign finance documents filed with the Federal Elections Commission, Dornan had about $119,000 in cash on hand as of Sept. 30 compared to Yudelson’s $24,938. Yudelson already had spent $139,254 on the race, but Dornan was using nearly all of his money to raise more money--at a cost of about 90 cents for every dollar brought in.

Lobbyists and PAC managers generally shrug off the fund raising by safe-bet members.

“The fact they’re unopposed doesn’t make any difference,” said lobbyist William F. Hildenbrand, a former top Senate Republican aide. “You don’t want a senator or a congressman to be able to say after his election, ‘Hey, you guys didn’t help me a damn bit.’ The very fact he doesn’t need help doesn’t change the fact that I don’t want him to forget that I was around.”

Consultant Mahe said many PACs are more interested in supporting winners than in influencing the outcome of close contests. “It’s less of a risk if the candidate doesn’t have opposition,” he said. “It’s like playing five-card stud poker and not having to put any money down until you have all the cards.”

In July and August, the American Medical Assn. made large contributions to at least three unopposed House incumbents: Reps. Jack Fields (R-Tex.), $5,000; J. Roy Rowland (D-Ga.), $3,970, and D. French Slaughter Jr. (R-Va.), $2,500.

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PAC manager Pete Lauer insisted that “if an unopposed person has a big war chest, we don’t give big money.” Told that Rowland reported more than $200,000 cash on hand at the end of June, Lauer said: “He’s a physician, the only one in the House. So you support your own.”

In a similar vein, the National Assn. of Realtors, which plans to spend $5.5 million on congressional campaigns this year, gave $3,000 apiece last month to at least five unopposed House incumbents.

“Even if they have no opponent, they may still be running a campaign, keeping their name before the voters,” explained realtors’ lobbyist Doug Thompson. “Each of those guys had a voting record above 60% on our issues. If they helped us, we try to help them.”

Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.), explaining a fund-raising binge that brought in more than $220,000 from PACs, said he “had every reason to expect opposition.” He ended up unopposed, but PACs continue giving to the mid-ranking Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

“I suspect that their Washington representatives want winners so that they can justify their existence to line officers of the company,” he said.

Bliley entered Congress in 1981, just missing out on the loophole that allows longer-term veterans to keep surplus funds upon retirement. Although he believes that the loophole “has a difficult time passing the smell test,” he does not advocate repeal. “Ultimately,” he said, “it will take care of itself” when all of the eligible lawmakers retire.

Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) is unopposed this year for an unusual reason: He entered and won both the Republican and Democratic primaries. “I spent a lot of money doing it,” he said, adding proudly that his large war chest had frightened off potent contestants.

Shuster, an influential member of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, protested that it was “resentful and simplistic for people to say, ‘Aha, you get money from transportation PACs, so you vote for their interests.’ It’s a chicken-and-egg problem. I made improved transportation my specialty before PACs were even invented.”

Acknowledges PAC Funds

California Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento), a prominent member of the House Appropriations, Budget and Ethics committees, acknowledged that he continues accepting PAC contributions even though he lacks an opponent.

“People are more happy giving money when they’re sure you’re coming back than when they’re not so sure,” he said.

Like a number of other lawmakers with safe seats, Fazio has set up his own PAC to funnel funds to other Democrats in tight races at the federal and local levels. A California colleague, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), once used such a PAC to help win backing from his colleagues for the chairmanship of the House subcommittee on health and the environment.

Dingell, defending his fund-raising activities, said he held all events well in advance of the May 31 filing deadline for candidates in his state, and therefore he could not know who would be running against him.

But in a development common to his career, he wound up drawing only a little-known independent for an opponent. Dingell was asked if, as a result, he was unnecessarily indebting himself to PACs, which have contributed nearly $400,000 to his campaign, three times as much as individuals.

Responding with a trace of his famed intimidating manner, he said: “Have you ever seen me unduly obligated to anybody for anything? I get campaign contributions from both sides on almost any issue. . . . Every son of a bitch who sells out cheap doesn’t belong here anyway.”

Dingell’s committee has one of the broadest reaches in Congress, with jurisdiction over securities, energy, communications, health and environmental issues.

Reminded that he, like 35 other congressmen in safe seats, is eligible to keep leftover campaign funds when he retires, Dingell said: “I haven’t determined what I will do with extra funds. . . . I see no reason to change the law.”

Nabisco PAC gave $500 to Dingell in March because “he asked for it,” lobbyist Alan C. Caldwell said. “His committee means a lot to the food business.” Caldwell noted it was unknown at the time whether Dingell would have an opponent. “I guess the reason these guys are so unopposed is they put up a strong front and people are afraid to oppose them,” he said.

But a related PAC, representing RJR Nabisco’s tobacco interests, gave Dingell $2,500 in June--after it was established that he had minimal opposition.

“That was requested by our Washington office. Talk to them,” RJR PAC official Don Foreman said from company headquarters in Winston-Salem, N.C. A Washington representative did not return phone calls.

$1-Million War Chest

Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, faces only an obscure Republican and a Communist at the polls, yet he has packed more than $300,000 from PACs into his war chest, pushing its balance over $1 million.

And Rostenkowski has been able to compound the largess by investing wisely, according to the Bond Buyer newspaper. Over a 5-year period, his campaign committee picked up an estimated $103,000 in tax-free income by investing surplus funds in an industrial development bond paying 9.25% interest. At the same time, ironically, Rostenkowski led a crusade in the House committee he chairs to eliminate the tax-exempt treatment of such bonds.

A spokesman said Rostenkowski’s fund raising was motivated in part by concern that the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington would back a strong candidate against him. The aide, Francis Canavan, also noted that the Chicago area stands to lose a House seat after the 1990 census, meaning Rostenkowski could be thrown into a primary fight against another Democratic incumbent in 1992.

Remedies Get Nowhere

Spending limits, PAC contribution limits, public financing of congressional elections, curbs on personal use of campaign funds--all these have been offered as remedies for the much-criticized current system of campaign financing. But once again this year, overhaul legislation got nowhere in Congress.

“The flip side of the PACs-buying-votes story is that members of Congress are riding this gravy train,” said Paul A. Equale, a lobbyist for the Independent Insurance Agents of America. “And they’re not going to get off until there’s a major scandal.”

Describing the indiscriminate way that lawmakers solicit--and accept--campaign funds from PACs, Equale said: “Members of Congress are like pretty girls who’ll go out with any football player that asks them to.”

Times staff writer Jeffrey A. Perlman contributed to this story from Orange County.


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