Luther's War Chest

FOR ALL THE overheated rhetoric about a Congressional revolution that does away with "business as usual" in Washington, there's one aspect of government spending that the newly elected members are not at all inclined to reduce--contributions to their campaigns. According to a new survey by Common Cause, the 86 members of the 1995 U.S. House freshman class raked in more than $24 million in campaign receipts last year, an average of $282,410 apiece. That's 57 percent more than the average raised by the last class of House freshmen in 1993. As a Business Week writer put it last September, "The greediest gorgers on PAC money these days are the freshman Republicans elected in 1994 on a platform of changing Washington."

But it isn't just PACs and Republicans who are inflating the cost of influence-peddling. In fact, Rep. Bill Luther (DFL-6th District) ranks among the top 10 freshmen in both money raised in 1995 and current cash on hand, a treasure chest that serves as a sharp reminder that PACs are not the only way in which corporate interests funnel big money into the political process. While contributions from PACs comprised just 27 percent of the $444,781 raised by Luther last year (a total amount of more than $1,200 per day), the lion's share came from large individual contributors, including dozens of business executives and their relatives, each of whom gave from $250 to $2,000 to the Luther For Congress Volunteer Committee.

Luther's stockpile of cash--he raised two-thirds more than the state's other freshman representative, Republican Gil Gutknecht--is even more notable considering that he is not a member of the Ways and Means or Commerce committees, the top two House appointments from a fundraising standpoint. Luther's assignment to the Small Business committee may explain the $1,000 individual contributions from owners of local firms ranging from American Ford and Bumper-To-Bumper, Inc., to the Valspar Corporation and Rahr Malting. And his membership on the Science committee, which has jurisdiction over research and development in a variety of industries, could be why the retired founder of Medtronic, Earl Bakken, and his wife each chipped in $1,000, along with ex-Ecolab CEO Pierson Grieve and AgChem President and CEO Alvin McQuinn.

Where the nexus of money and influence is concerned, Luther dismisses his committee duties as "mostly informational hearings. It's not very high-powered." Indeed, most of his large contributors were probably more concerned with his votes on closely contested issues brought before the entire House. With deregulation of the telecommunications industry on center stage, it isn't a surprise to see traditional Republican contributors like the Hubbard family (of the Hubbard Broadcasting Company) giving the Luther campaign $3,000. (Luther voted against the telecommunications bill that left the House, then supported the legislation that made it through the Senate-House conference committee, a bill many observers believe will concentrate power among a few telecommunications companies.)

Luther points out that many corporate executives are individually contributing to his campaign because their corporate entities are barred from giving money without setting up a PAC. But with so much of the campaign-reform effort focused on the role of PACs, individual contributions are also a safer means of making your presence felt and minimizing negative publicity. Thus, while Dayton Hudson's PAC gave Luther $1,000 last year, individual members of the Dayton clan contributed more than $6,000; and while the First Bank System PAC was donating $250, many executives there were giving three and four times that amount. Also present on the contributors' list were Washington lobbyists representing United Healthcare and MCI, each of whom contributed $250. They were among the non-Minnesota residents who gave a total of $12,000 to Luther last year.

"It's a disgusting system we have at the federal level," says Luther, "and there is no excuse for it. It is the product of incumbents just looking out for themselves. That's why I want to stay in Congress, to make sure we continue to clean this up. We started with the gift ban. Now we need a total spending limit and a limit on [individual] contributions."

But in order to stay in Congress, Luther figures he's going to need a lot more campaign contributions. He correctly notes that he barely made it into office with 50 percent of the vote in '94, and that his district has been targeted as a tossup by both sides. Asked if he expects to raise another $444,000 or so in 1996, he says, "Yes, I have to be prepared to do that."

 
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