Will Rogers's oft-quoted phrase "the best Congress money can buy" seems particularly apt after reading this study of corporate political action committees (PACs) and their influence in Washington. Unlike so many polemics against the abuses of government, however, this book is sober, comprehensive, well-researched, and — amazingly — told in large part in the words of PAC directors themselves. Based on extensive interviews (all quoted anonymously, of course), the book provides a fascinating, behind-the-scenes glimpse of how PACs work, what they seek to gain from their contributions, and how they lobby their "special" interests.
Since PAC contributions are considered "gifts" rather than bribes, the key is to create a sense of obligation and thereby win "access" to legislators, the authors point out. Once the door is open, corporations can then persuade members of Congress "to make 'minor' changes in a bill," that may end up saving them literally billions of dollars. Ernest & Julio Gallo, for instance, succeeded in reducing their taxes by $27 million through "contributions" of just $325,000.
The book is full of astonishing examples like this one. The chapter on campaign finance reform is especially timely in light of the Clinton administration's latest proposals. The authors are not very optimistic about either the likelihood or the effectiveness of reform, however. After all, special interests, by definition, are antithetical to the general interest. No reform can overcome the inherent contradictions between economics and politics, they argue. At best, reform can lead to further reform.
Since the authors are scholars rather than Washington insiders (think tankers, journalists, policy analysts, etc.), the book has an academic slant and a certain lack of realism in places. But the authors are open about it and probably justified considering that their biggest audience is likely to be on college campuses, not Capitol Hill.
This review appeared in the Winter 1994 issue of Antioch Review.
Copyright 1994 by Scott London. All rights reserved.