WASHINGTON - Despite rising concern among voters over the issue of campaign financing, auto industry political action committees say they do not intend to curb efforts to raise money for favored candidates.
'We are pretty proud of our record. We don't make any apologies for what we do,' said Greg Knopp, director of the Dealers Election Action Committee of the National Automobile Dealers Association.
The group started this year with nearly $2.6 million in the bank and plans to spend about $3.2 million during the 1997-98 election cycle, about the same as the past election, Knopp said.
During the 1995-96 election cycle, about $2.2 billion flowed into congressional and presidential campaigns and to the national party committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit research organization in Washington.
Organized labor gave about $42 million, including roughly $10 million from industrial unions, the center estimates.
Of that $10 million, the UAW's Voluntary Community Action Program contributed $4 million, the largest contribution by an industrial union, according to the center analysis.
The $2.47 million it gave directly to federal candidates was third highest among roughly 4,000 PACs nationwide. UAW officials declined to comment for this story.
Mary Dreape Hanagan, executive director of the Americans for Free International Trade Political Action Committee, which represents import dealers, said her group is on track to raise and spend about $2.4 million in the 1997-98 election cycle.
That would be roughly a 33 percent increase over the record $1.85 million it disbursed in 1995 and 1996, she said.
PACs representing the Big 3 all had substantial gains, led by a $300,000 increase in spending by the Civic Involvement Program of General Motors, to a total of $778,000.
'We should have a million-dollar PAC' for the next election, said Margot Parker, director of the GM political action committee. 'It's important that we be involved in the political process.'
She listed regulatory reform, fuel-economy standards and global climate change as three issues debated in Washington that 'could radically change our industry.'
The PAC directors' enthusiasm for putting more money into the electoral process comes despite a decision by General Motors to stop making another kind of contribution known as 'soft money.'
Soft money, although legal, consists of largely unregulated contributions made directly to the Democratic National Committee or the Republican National Committee.
In contrast to contributions to candidates, which cannot exceed certain limits, soft funds can be given in unlimited amounts for party-building activities, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives.
Over time, however, both Democrats and Republicans have found creative ways to use the money to aid campaigns.
Such contributions totaled nearly $264 million in the last election cycle.
The leading campaign finance reform legislation under consideration in Congress, among other things, would outlaw soft money. But the proposal is given little chance of being enacted.
President Clinton, who is alleged to have been a major beneficiary of soft money last year, has asked the Federal Election Commission to use its regulatory authority to abolish the gifts.
And the Democratic National Committee, stung by charges it accepted illegal foreign contributions, has said it will refuse contributions from U.S. subsidiaries of foreign corporations.
The last move is offensive to some who contribute.
'We kind of resent being characterized as anything less than an American operation,' said Robert Wade, corporate communications manager for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.
He said after investing more than $7 billion in the United States and providing more than 100,000 jobs in design, production and sales, Toyota believes it should not be treated as 'something less than true citizens.'
Wade said Toyota gave a relatively modest $120,000 in soft money in 1995-96 and considers it a 'ticket to membership' for party events and issue discussions. The Center for Responsive Politics claims Toyota's giving was closer to $200,000.
In either case, Wade said the company is re-evaluating its policy on such contributions, as it does with any expenditure.
BIG CHANGES UNLIKELY
Parker of the GM PAC said some modest reforms would improve the image of campaign finance, such as requiring complete disclosure. But she said she doubts Congress will make big changes to the rules.
She said that perhaps GM's decision to stop soft contributions 'will stiffen the spines of others in the business community' to take matters into their own hands.
In fact, in recent weeks, AlliedSignal Inc. and Monsanto Co. have said they are stopping soft-money gifts, at least for now.
On the other hand, Heinz Prechter, chairman of ASC Inc., a major sunroof and convertible-top supplier, will probably keep giving soft money as long as the unions give overwhelmingly to Democrats, said Prechter aide Scott Stangeland.
'He is very patriotic and loves being part of the process,' said Stangeland. But he added that if soft money contributions were outlawed, 'it would not break anyone's heart.'
Stangeland said Prechter gave 'about $100,000' to the Republican National Committee in 1995-96. The Center for Responsive Politics puts the total at more than $125,000.
Several PAC leaders suggested that one possible side effect of the controversy over soft money is that people will come to appreciate PACs as the good guys of the campaign finance system, instead of constantly being tainted as 'special interests' buying access to officeholders.
'I like to point out to people that PACs were a result of Watergate. They were the reform,' said Knopp, director of NADA's Dealers Election Action Committee. 'And they have succeeded.'