Feeding Frenzy At The Money Trough

Las Vegas veterinarian John Ensign pulled off one of the big upsets of the 1994 congressional elections, toppling a four-term House Democrat in a Democratic district. Then, almost as soon as he arrived in Washington, Ensign turned his attention to 1996, mapping out a fund-raising strategy.

Using his powerful seat on the tax-writing House Ways & Means Committee as a lure, Ensign has held small dinners--at up to $500 a head--for health, energy, and banking lobbyists. He also has visited potential donors in Chicago and New York. Ensign's tenacity has paid off: During the first half of 1995, he raked in $195,854 from political action committees, tops among the GOP frosh. "We have one of the toughest races in the freshman class," he says. "We want to be able to respond to attack ads."

Ensign isn't the only GOP first-termer with a golden touch. Although they stormed Capitol Hill promising to shake up the political Establishment, the Class of '94 has embraced one time-honored Washington tradition all too well: shaking the special-interest money tree. During the first half of 1995, the 74 GOP freshmen raised $4.8 million from PACs--49% of their total take, says Common Cause, a public-interest watchdog group. That's about $1.3 million more than the class of 1992 had raised during the same point in the election cycle and the most ever raised by a freshman class so early.

TROUBLESOME. Although lawmakers won't file Federal Election Commission reports for the second half of 1995 until Jan. 31, interviews with PAC managers and a spot check of recent PAC reports indicate that the giving only has accelerated. "The freshmen have raised `working hard for the money' to a new level," says David Rehr, a lobbyist with the National Beer Wholesalers Assn.

What's behind their zeal? Fear. Freshmen are vulnerable when they seek reelection, and early money can scare off rivals. Take Representative Frank Riggs (R.-Calif.), whose $201,309 in PAC and individual donations has discouraged a '96 challenge by a popular state senator. Corporate interests yearning for a sympathetic ear on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, are happy to oblige. Among the top PAC givers: homebuilders and Realtors, who killed congressional attempts to force large mortgage players to shore up the weak thrift insurance fund; the beer wholesalers, who want to ensure that beer taxes do not rise; and cigarette companies opposed to anti-tobacco regulations (table).

Some first-termers are troubled by their colleagues' successful PAC fund-raising. "History will judge us on whether we clean up the mess or continue politics as usual," laments Representative Linda Smith (R-Wash.). Smith wants to outlaw PAC giving altogether--or at least to lower per-lawmaker contributions from the current $5,000. She and others grumble that GOP leaders have only given lip service to reform. Argues Ensign: "I can't dismantle unilaterally." Representative Sue Kelly (R-N.Y.) agrees. "I would be glad to get this monkey off our backs. But until finance reform happens, most of us will accept PAC funding. We have to run a race."

These freshmen, though, are far from passive recipients. Many court corporations with business before their committees. Take Representative Daniel Frisa (R-N.Y.), who sits on House Commerce. The committee is considering a telecommunications overhaul, but Frisa accepted more than $40,000 during 1995 from those with a stake in the outcome, such as AT&T, BellSouth, MCI Communications, and Nynex.

WHO'S ARGUING? Meanwhile, Representative Frank A. Cremeans (R-Ohio), whose Banking Committee is mulling a bill to make it tougher for banks to sell insurance, has received about $45,000 from bankers and insurers, including Banc One, NationsBank, and the National Association of Life Underwriters. "They've bought into the system, and the system has bought into them," says Joshua Goldstein of the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign-finance research group.

With the '96 election looming, the money chase is sure to speed up. And no one has much interest in stopping it: neither the lawmakers who want to keep their jobs nor the companies that need a favor or two from them.

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