WASHINGTON, D.C. — As the 1996 election campaign kicks off, GOP congressional candidates are for the first time receiving a majority of the funds raised by pro-Israel political action committees.
The Republicans' $23 million exceeded the Democrats' $12 million in overall PAC receipts during the first six months of 1995 — the latest period for which figures are available — according to the Federal Election Commission.
During that period, pro-Israel PACs contributed nearly $340,000 to congressional candidates from both parties, as well as another $30,000 to Republican presidential candidates.
Fully 53 percent of the contributions went to Republican congressional candidates — a dramatic turnaround from the first six months of 1993, when Republicans received only 27 percent of funds raised by pro-Israel PACs.
PAC officials say the shift in funding simply reflects changing political realities. Traditionally, interest groups give where the power is situated.
"Any interest group will normally support people who have the ability to help them," said Morris Amitay, founder and treasurer of the Washington PAC, which has shifted more of its funding toward Republicans, but still favors Democrats.
"With majorities and chairmanships shifting toward the Republicans, it's only natural that you'll see more money going toward the Republicans," he added.
Republicans captured majorities in both the Senate and the House in 1994.
National PAC, the largest pro-Israel PAC — which accounted for nearly one-third of the total pro-Israel contributions tallied in the first-half of 1995 — gave 65 percent of their outlays to Republicans.
As the pre-eminent pro-Israel donor, NATPAC's influence is great enough to sway the total pro-Israel PAC contributions in favor of Republican congressional candidates.
Aside from NATPAC, the rest of the pro-Israel PACs slightly favored Democratic congressional candidates over Republicans in their 1995 donations, though the amounts given to GOP candidates represented significant increases over donations made in years past.
Chuck Brooks, executive director of NATPAC, said the group shifted large chunks of funding away from Democrats to Republicans not because of "policy differences," but because of the "practical realities" of Republican power.
Pro-Israel PACs have traditionally been among the largest contributors to congressional campaigns that fall under the category of ideological or single-issue interest groups. Rather than spreading the wealth thinly among dozens of candidates, the pro-Israel PACs tend to concentrate their contributions in a small number of key races, usually in the Senate.
The PACs often encourage Jewish candidates to run, but say they do not necessarily give preference to Jews. Funding decisions are instead based on candidates' records.
Overall fund-raising by pro-Israel PACs has dropped off by about 20 percent from the first six months of 1993, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research organization that examines money and politics.
Last year's drop follows the sharp declines in giving that began in 1990. Pro-Israel PACs have decreased their contributions from $6.7 million in 1990 to $4 million in 1992 and $2.3 million in 1994.
Moreover, the number of active pro-Israel PACs has declined by more than half since the early '90s — from 56 between 1991 and 1992, to 45 between 1993 and 1994, down to 24 in 1995.
PAC officials say contributions this year will probably fall well short of the totals from past cycles.
Brooks attributes the decline to a "complacency in the community" as Middle East peace progresses.
"Now, with love fests between Clinton and the Israeli leadership, it's hard to make the argument that we definitely have to use Congress to get to the administration," Amitay said.
But PAC officials caution against complacency. Half of those in Congress have been elected during the 1990s — a number likely to rise with a record number of incumbents retiring in 1996, they say.
"I think the [Jewish] community is at risk if we neglect the fact that these people need to be educated and cultivated on these issues," Brooks said.
With more open seats and less money to give, PAC officials say they will have to be more selective in deciding which candidate to support.
PACs can donate $5,000 to each congressional candidate in primaries and $5,000 in general elections.
Brooks said NATPAC would focus on congressional leaders and key committee members responsible for aid to Israel.
It also intends to support Republican presidential candidates, such as Sens. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), Phil Gramm (R-Texas) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), whose records show strong support for Israel, as well as President Bill Clinton.
Although support for Israel is bipartisan, Democrats are considered more in step with the mainstream Jewish community on issues such as abortion, school prayer and preserving the social safety net.
As a response to the Republican power shift, the National Jewish Democratic Council has started up an independent, partisan PAC.
Ira Forman, the group's executive director, said NJDC PAC can best represent Jewish and pro-Israel interests by contributing to Democratic congressional candidates.
Other interest groups, such as the Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs — a women's group with a strong emphasis on pro-choice candidates — continue to give the bulk of their funds to Democrats, despite the power shift.
Marsha Balonick, executive director of JACPAC, said her group performs a "litmus test" on candidates on key social issues to determine whom they can support.
Although the group has always looked for Republicans to back, Balonick said, "It's always been a problem" to find them.