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THE INFLUENCE GAME: Number of PACs hits record

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[March 14, 2009]  WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of groups contributing money to presidential and congressional candidates has soared to an all-time high with their strongest growth in a generation, reflecting the fervor over last year's presidential race and a desire for access and clout when lawmakers tackle upcoming issues.

According to the Federal Election Commission, 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 up 9 percent over the 4,234 that existed a year earlier.

Many of the new political action committees created last year reflect the types of issues 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, Mo., 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 plans to address health care.

One such group was started last year by the National Association of Professional Employer Organizations, which represents businesses that handle human resources tasks for other companies. It was among 540 political action committees started in 2008, and its members are hoping 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 political action 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 political action committees to increase in presidential election years, last year's growth was the strongest in a presidential year since 1984, which saw a 14 percent boost.

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The two-year election cycle of 2007 and 2008 also saw record spending of nearly $1.2 billion by political action committees, up from $1.1 billion the previous two years, the election commission said. In the previous presidential campaign of 2003 and 2004, political action committees 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 political action committees, and other expenses.

Most of the new committees spent small fractions of the huge sums expended by established groups. The political action committee 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.

[Associated Press; By ALAN FRAM]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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