Pols pocket $18 mil in ’90s from telecom biz

Broadcast, cable TV and telephone companies that stand to benefit mightily if Congress passes sweeping telecommunications deregulation legislation have donated $18 million to current House and Senate members who will be voting on the bill.

That’s the claim from Common Cause, the D.C. public interest group that tracks the influence of money on politics.

In the study “Robber Barons of the ’90s,” Common Cause found that from January 1985 through December 1994, telecommunications firms ponied up $39.5 million in federal political contributions. Some $30.9 million of the coin was sent to candidates in the form of political action committee contributions; the other $8.6 million was delivered as “soft money” contributions to Democratic and Republican national parties.

Baby Bell and other local telephone company contributions amounted to $17.3 million in the last decade, while long distance companies doled out $9.5 million. Political contributions from the cable and broadcast industries came to $8 million and $4.7 million, respectively, according to Common Cause.

“The telecommunications industry is using big money in its effort to win what could be the most lucrative special-interest victory in Washington,” said Common Cause prexy Ann McBride. “The industry’s $40 million investment of political money could yield a return of billions in profits – while adding billions in new costs to consumers.”

AT& T was the largest donor over the decade, giving $6.5 million. Other donors in the top 10 included BellSouth Corp., $2.92 million; GTE Corp., $2.9 million; the National Cable Television Assn., $2.2 million; Ameritech Corp., $1.93 million; Pacific Telesis, $1.7 million; US West, $1.66 million; the National Assn. of Broadcasters, $1.63 million; Bell Atlantic, $1.56 million; and Sprint, $1.53 million.

Tele-Communications Inc., the nation’s largest cable operator, gave $200,000 five days before last November’s election to the Republican National Committee, the single largest onetime donation by any company.

One industry source defended the PAC contributions as a price for doing business on Capitol Hill. “It (the money) doesn’t do anything but get you access. When the competition has access, you need to have it as well.”

Legislation in both the House and Senate would overhaul 61 years of communications law. The bills would lift restrictions against telephone company entry into cable, end FCC price controls on cable program tiers, and allow large broadcast companies to own TV stations that reach more U.S. homes than is currently permitted.

The largest Senate recipient from the telecommunications industry PAC money pipeline has been Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), the longtime chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. Hollings, who raked in $273,297 in the last 10 years, was replaced as head of the panel by Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) when Republicans won control of Capitol Hill last November.

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the former chairman of the House Commerce Committee, pulled in $298,690 from industry donors during the last decade, the largest recipient of telco PAC money largess in the House. House telecommunications subcommittee chairman Jack Fields (R-Texas) followed Dingell, receiving industry contributions totaling $223,008.

After the NAB, the broadcast industry’s top donors were Westinghouse Corp., Paramount Communications, New World Communications and Fox Inc.

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