- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - More groups than ever are contributing money to presidential and congressional candidates as their strongest growth in a generation reflects the fervor over last year’s White House election and a desire for access and clout on Capitol Hill.

The Federal Election Commission says that on Jan. 1 there were 4,611 political action committees, which are formed by companies, unions or other groups to raise and spend money to help presidential and congressional candidates. That was 9 percent more than the 4,234 PACs a year earlier.

Many of the ones created last year reflect the types of issues that President Barack Obama and Congress, now largely controlled by Democrats, hope to tackle this year.

Among those forming new committees were the National Asphalt Pavement Association and several local branches of the International Union of Operating Engineers, whose members could benefit from paving new roads; the Patriot Coal Corp. of St. Louis, a large coal producer concerned about energy issues; and Varian Medical Systems of Palo Alto, Calif., a producer of medical devices for treating cancer, which could be affected by Obama’s health care plans.

One of the 540 committees started in 2008 was set up the National Association of Professional Employer Organizations, which represents businesses that handle human resources tasks for other companies. Its members hope lawmakers will make it easier for them to collect payroll taxes for their clients.

“It’s achieved what we wanted to do,” Milan Yager, the association’s executive director, said of the $21,000 his group reported in contributions, a relatively tiny sum. “We’ve been able to go to some events” _ fundraisers _ “and meet members of Congress and their staff and have face time.”

Such access is precisely why many groups form the committees, says Paul Herrnson, a professor of government at the University of Maryland who has written about campaign finance.

“The hope is that a member of Congress will consider them part of their policy team, in the sense that they’ll take a phone call or meet with a representative of the group,” Herrnson said.

While it is natural for the number of such committees to increase in presidential election years, last year’s growth was the strongest in a presidential year since 1984, when there was a 14 percent boost.

The two-year election cycle of 2007 and 2008 also saw record spending of nearly $1.2 billion by PACs, compared with $1.1 billion the previous two years, the election commission said. In the previous presidential campaign of 2003 and 2004, PACs spent $843 million.

Of 2007-2008 spending, $234 million went directly to Democratic candidates and $178 million to Republicans. The rest went to indirect expenditures for candidates, contributions to parties or other PACs, and other expenses.

Most of the new committees spent small fractions of the huge sums expended by established groups. The PAC run by the National Association of Realtors contributed $3.9 million to candidates in 2008, the year’s top amount, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

The strongest growth among committees was in those formed by ideological or political groups, which grew last year by 23 percent to 1,594. Largely reflecting activity in last year’s campaigns, such new groups included OurGreatestFear.org, which raised money to oppose the Republican ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin, and PLR PAC, which helped finance conservative radio advertising aimed at the Hispanic community.

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On the Net:

Federal Election Commission: http://www.fec.gov

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