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Campaign Reforms Could Cut Unions' Clout, Some Say

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Washington--Campaign-finance reforms being debated by the Senate could diminish the political clout of teachers' unions, according to poltical observers and union spokesmen.

The leading proposals would restrict or eliminate one of the unions' most powerful tools for influencing national politics and policy--political-action committees that contribute millions of dollars in each election cycle to federal candidates.

Also under consideration are measures that would restrict other political activities of nonprofit organizations, including unions.

But while both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have argued for reforms to the current system of campaign finance, there is no consensus even within the parties about what form those changes should take, and passage of legislation is far from certain.

The lack of consensus prompted Senate Majority Leader George J.Mitchell, Democrat of Maine, and Minority Leader Robert J. Dole, Republican of Kansas, to appoint negotiating teams last week charged with hammering out a compromise between radically different packages unveiled early in the month by party leaders.

The Republican plan would bar pac contributions in national elections and prohibit lobbyists and unions from making independent expenditures on behalf of candidates, while dramatically increasing the4amounts of money that individual contributors could donate to campaigns and political parties.

The Democrats' proposal would bar pac contributions to individual Senate candidates and restrict the total amount party committees could accept from them, and would establish a system of public financing for campaigns.

'Discredited' System?

Observers agree that both parties are motivated partially by self-interest.

Republicans have long complained that they are disadvantaged by the power of pac's, because they give more money to incumbents and Democrats hold majorities in both chambers of the Congress.

Democrats would likely benefit most from public financing, because they usually raise less money over all than Republicans and have fewer wealthy individual contributors to tap.

Such considerations aside, observers say, campaign finance has emerged as an issue in response to a public perception that the burden of financing political campaigns has corrupted the electoral process.

"It's pretty clear that from the bills that have been introduced by both parties that the current system of financing campaigns is discredited," said Michael Mawby, a senior lobbyist for Common Cause, a nonprofit organization that has led the fight for campaign-finance reform.

"A big part of that system," he con8tinued, "is the significant influence of political-action committees in the process."

But representatives of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers--whose pac expenditures ranked them 4th and 28th, respectively, among pac's that contributed to federal candidates in the 1987-88 election cycle--argued that the elimination of the committees would open the door to abuse of the political process by the wealthy.

"Our view on the plans of both of the parties that have been presented is that they limit the ability of both middle- and low-income voters to take part in the political process," said Debra DeLee, director of government relations for the nea

"The people who would limit pac contributions would like you to believe that $5,000 gathered from 2 million people has a corrupting influence on the political process," she said, referring to the maximum a pac can contribute to a candidate under current law.

"We don't believe that teachers and educators are a corrupting influence," Ms. DeLee said.

Rachelle Horowitz, political director of the aft, expressed similar sentiments.

"Our political-action committee is a grouping of hundreds of thousands of people who contribute $10 and $15 a year," Ms. Horowitz said. "They are the only way for 'unrich' people to contribute to the campaign."

But Mr. Mawby said the argument that individual $5,000 contributions wield only incremental influence on the political process misses the point that, collectively, pac's are a major force.

The thrust of campaign-reform measures, he argued, is not to curb the influence of members of particular, influential groups, but to counteract the overall dominance of pac's.

"It isn't that any one pac gives [a certain] amount of dollars," Mr. Mawby said. "It isn't that the n.e.a. pac or the a.f.t. pac is particularly bad."

"But you begin to see the scope of the problem when you look at pac's on an industrywide basis," he added. "There are a couple of hundred oil and gas pac's and a couple of hundred more banking and finance pac's, so the problem isn't just a $5,000 contribution from a single pac."

The fact that both parties have targeted pac's in their proposals "is pretty much across-the-board recognition that the pac influence on the process is too strong," Mr. Mawby said.

$2 Million From N.E.A.

According to the Federal Election Commission, pac's contributed a quarter of all the money raised by Senate candidates for the 1988 elections, or approximately $45 million in all.

The nea's pac contributed $2.1 million to candidates for federal office in the 1987-88 election cycle, making it the fourth largest contributor to federal campaigns, trailing only the nation's realtors, the American Medical Association, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The aft's pac contributed a total of $865,063.

Election-commission records indicate that, over all, the nea pac raised $3.8 million and spent $3.6 million in the last election cycle. The aft, which had cash on hand in 1987, raised $1.5 million and spent $1.6 million.

But Thomas Mann, a political analyst with the Brookings Institution, said that it is unclear how much influence pac's have on the electoral process and hard to predict how much their abolition or dimunition would cripple teachers' unions politically.

"The assumption is that a contribution is marginally useful in getting to present one's case," he said. "Most money tends to follow votes rather than vice-versa."

But, he added, it is also possible that unions could lose clout if pac's were eliminated, simply because they have few other resources to fall back on.

"It seems to me it's easier for corporations to substitute large, individual contributions from executives," he said.

Mr. Mann added, however, that because teachers tend to be more active politically than other groups, "grassroots efforts could pick up whatever is lost from the withdrawal of campaign contributions."

Other Curbs Proposed

Limitations on pac's are the proposals that most worry union lobbyists, but other components of the reform packages would also affect4those and other organizations.

The Republican measure, for example, would bar tax-exempt groups, including unions, from electioneering on behalf of federal candiates, require disclosure of independent expenditures on behalf of candidates, and specifically require unions to notify members and dues-paying nonmembers that they are entitled to a refund of dues used for political activities.

The Democratic plan would bar independent expenditures by pac's affiliated with organizations with registered lobbyists.

The gop proposal would deny tax-exempt status to any organization that registered voters or turned them out for elections if a candidate or member of the Congress solicited money for the group. The Democrats' would bar federal candidates and officeholders from raising money for voter registration or "get-out-the-vote" drives.

Union representatives argue that endorsements made by the unions reflect the views of the majority of their membership and that curtailing their ability to endorse candidates would infringe on their members' freedoms.

In combination with the proposed curbs on pac contributions, Ms. Horowitz of the aft contended, the efforts to curtail unions' other political activities are designed to divert reforms from the most blatant forms of political corruption--large contributions from wealthy individuals--by taking on the more high-profile unions and nonprofit groups.

"The major question is influence peddling," she said. "Any legislation that is proposed ought to get at that, instead of looking at ways to wipe out the influence of unions that represent millions of people."

The union representatives said they would favor public financing of campaigns, the centerpiece of the Democratic proposal, but not as part of a piecemeal plan that singles out pac's.

"The most equitable form of campaign reform would be a system of public financing," said Ms. Horowitz. "But a complete system of public financing, not one that cuts out pac's but allows individual investors."

The Democratic measure would impose spending limits on Senate campaigns based on a state's voting-age population. The limits would range from $1.8 million in Alaska to $9.6 million in California.

Candidates could spend more, and qualify for public financing, if they agreed to abide by a set of restrictions, including a limit on their own contributions to their campaigns.

Reforms Slow To Come?

Despite extensive public pronouncements by Senate advocates of reform, many lobbyists, politicians, and observers say actual change is a distant goal and any reforms that are enacted will be forged in large part in behind-the-scenes negotiations.

"There's plenty of room for negotiation," Senator David L. Boren of Oklahoma, the chief sponsor of the Democratic proposal, told reporters this month when he introduced his party's plan.

While Mr. Mawby of Common Cause argued that opening negotiations is an important first step toward real reform, Mr. Mann of the Brookings Institution suggested that the result may well be "fairly modest changes" to the existing system, which might include reducing the amounts that pac's are allowed to contribute.

"We're a long way from banning pac's, and I think we're a long way from any reform of the campaign finance system," Mr. Mann said.

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