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PACS SERVE AN IMPORTANT PURPOSE

It may sound something like saying that Hitler had his good side too, but political action committees aren't all bad - and are good enough that they should be preserved.

But the main benefit they provide - helping disclose exactly what types of groups fund an incumbent's campaign - could be lost in proposed campaign reform bills now before Congress.Both parties in the Senate have proposed abolishing PACs, an action which "good government" groups also support.

That appears good at first glance. After all, PACs channel enormous amounts of money from special interests to incumbents in Congress, leaving many to wonder how much access and influence it buys.

Meanwhile, only a trickle of PAC money flows to challengers because they are a risky investment. PACs get more bang for their buck by giving to people in power. That is one reason that 98 percent of House members who run for re-election win.

At least with PACs and their financial disclosure laws, voters can have a fairly good idea of where candidates receive their money and how much they get.

If PACs disappear, such disclosure likely goes, too. But businesses and other special interests will still find ways to get money to candidates.

Kent Cooper, the assistant staff director at the Federal Election Commission's public records department, said channeling money to candidates without disclosure is easy and can already be done in numerous ways.

For example, a corporation could simply organize an effort to have its employees, their spouses and relatives give direct, individual contributions to a candidate. Their connection to a special interest would not be as apparent as it would if money were given through a corporate PAC.

Such people could also get around the $1,000 limit on individual donations to a candidate per campaign by giving money for him to another candidate with the understanding that the donation be passed back accordingly. Inter-candidate donations are common.

Special interests could do the same by donating money to a political party with the loose understanding that it be channeled to a candidate of interest.

Candidates can also set up accounts for such things as influencing redistricting, get-out-the-vote drives, voter registration drives and testing-the-water committees.

Other methods of special interests helping candidates without disclosing it include giving fees for speeches by the candidate directly to organizations that could benefit him; giving free financial or technical advice; hiring or giving a loan to the candidate, his spouse or a staffer; or spending unlimited money in a campaign supporting a candidate as long as it is done without direct consultation with him.

With PACs, special interests still spend money to benefit a candidate, but voters can have a clearer picture of it.

For example, a Common Cause study of the two House members from Utah seeking re-election this year - Republican Rep. Jim Hansen and Democratic Rep. Wayne Owens - shows that since 1983, Hansen has received $541,830 from PACs (55 percent of all donations) and Owens has received $818,981 (57 percent of his donations).

Hansen, who sits on the House Armed Forces Committee, received $35,730 from defense contractors. He also received large contributions during that time from the National Association of Realtors ($28,200 total), the American Medical Association ($27,500) and the National Association of Homebuilders ($19,250).

Owens, Utah's only Democrat in Congress, received $392,711 from labor PACs - with 15 different unions giving him more than $15,000 each. A member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Owens also got $49,900 from pro-Israel PACs.

If special-interest money can't be stopped, it is wise to at least disclose it. Keeping PACs would do that.