AED in Washington - CED Articles|
Article Date: 09-01-1999
Copyright (C) 1999 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.
Vol. 65, No. 9
PACs: THE REAL HOW OF POLITICS
By Anthony J. Obadal
AED Washington Counsel
Distributors' many voices become one amplified, powerful message when your PAC does the talking.
How things happen in Washington has changed dramatically in the 20th century. High-tech media communication has become an essential part of modern politics. Television and radio ads and Web pages are now a standard part of every political campaign as candidates struggle with the fundamental campaign question: How do you reach out to the 500,000 voters in each congressional district? As a result, the cost of running for public office has increased dramatically in recent years. An average campaign for the House of Representatives now costs around $700,000; the cost of the running for Senate is about $4 million. And some races are much more expensive.
With the increased cost of running for office has come a new responsibility for citizens who want to impact the public life of the nation. Simply voting for a candidate is no longer enough to ensure their election. Contributing to the campaigns of candidates who see the issues the same way you do is now absolutely necessary. One way of doing so is through political action committees (PACs), entities set up by trade associations and other organizations to raise and contribute political money.
Despite what the media wants you to believe, PACs don't buy votes. Federal bribery statutes ensure that there's no link between a contribution and an official act. (Besides, the amount of money that PACs can contribute is so limited these days that only a reprobate would sell his soul for that sum!) Instead, PACs provide a meaningful way for an organization like AED to influence the political process by influencing who is elected.
By combining many individual contributions, AED’s PAC allows distributors to speak together in elections more loudly than they could apart. Perhaps most important, PACs demonstrate to members of Congress the level of commitment that members of an association have to the organization's government affairs program. A large PAC budget tells lawmakers that the group's political goals enjoy the support of a wide cross-section of the group's membership and therefore warrant lawmakers' careful consideration.
PACs also allow entire industries to work together to influence the political process. For example, during the 1997-’98 election cycle, AED joined forces with the National Utility Contractors Association and the National Stone Association to host a series of Washington, D.C., fundraising breakfasts. The goal of these fundraisers was simple: to provide a forum for members of Congress and their key staffers to learn more about the construction industry and about how our members are affected by issues like highway funding, the estate tax and product liability reform.
Although most of the time AED's interests coincide with those of our industry allies, sometimes an issue affects distributors more than anyone else. The Tennessee Valley Authority's heavy equipment program, the Gray Market, and the General Services Administration's cooperative purchasing program are only a few examples of issues that, if not nipped in the bud, would have had a devastating impact on distributors. When those issues arise, AED's PAC allows AED members to speak to lawmakers with a clear and independent voice.
It's important to note that the Associated General Contractors’ PAC raises and spends about $850,000 during an average two-year election cycle. The National Utility Contractors Association has about a $300,000 annual budget. The American Road and Transportation Builders Association's is about $120,000. With those numbers in mind, AED's annual PAC budget of about $40,000 per year is just barely adequate. Distributors owe a debt of gratitude to those Capitol Club members who have stepped up to the plate and contributed to the PAC. If our association is to remain politically competitive with other industry groups, more AED members must become involved. This year, the Government Affairs Committee intends to make an intensive drive to obtain new contributors to increase the PAC's visibility and influence.
All told, in 1997-’98, the business community contributed about $18 million to congressional candidates. That may sound like a lot of money, but consider this: during the last election cycle labor and environmental groups contributed more than $45.5 million to congressional campaigns. Add to that the $2.4 million in contributions given by the American Trial Lawyers Association and you're talking about almost $50 million in campaign contributions given by groups with stated political objectives contrary to those of our industry. With numbers like that, it's no wonder that pro-growth forces almost lost control of the House of Representatives last November. And if those spending patterns continue in 2000, we could be in really big trouble.
I've talked with a few distributors who say they want campaign reform and more federal financing. Thus far, AED has not adopted that position. Moreover, waiting for reform leaves us at the starting gate. We become nonparticipants in the battle to influence the direction of America––participation is the only way to affect democratic decisions in this country. And political contributions are just one more form of participation.