WASHINGTON - John Witt contributes to the new Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s political action committee to support candidates of like mind with the plastics industry. ``I think it's something they should have done some time ago,'' said the chairman of the new SPI PAC. ``I understand there was some opposition [within SPI] because of the bad press'' associated with political action committees.
SPI has not announced its new PAC formally, but has made mention of it in publications directed to members. An SPI staff member outlined its advantages at an April 29 meeting of the association's Machinery Division.
Sensitivity to criticism has caused many organizations to delay forming PACs. Add to this a plethora of complicated rules surrounding PAC administration: for example, association members first must sign a statement allowing the PAC to solicit them for money, then sign again affirming their contribution.
Nonprofit education associations and charities, such as the American Plastics Council, are forbidden to form PACs and face loss of their tax-exempt status if the Internal Revenue Service catches them politicking.
The Chemical Manufacturers Association and SPI are the APC's two parent organizations. At least 14 of APC's 27 corporate members have their own corporate PACs.
The poor image of PACs, coupled with the daunting rules of PAC formation and administration caused CMA, also in Washington, to delay forming its PAC until 1992, according to spokesman Tom Gilroy. The federal law setting out PACs has been in effect since 1974.
CMA's PAC distributed about $60,000 of ``hard'' or direct funding to candidates in the two-year 1993-94 election cycle.
``A number of our companies have had their own PACs for years,'' Gilroy said.
CMA, however, contributed most of its $122,900 in 1995 indirect, unlimited, or ``soft'' funding to Republican campaign committees. These contributions included its largest, $31,400, to the Washington-based National Re-publican Congressional Cam-paign Committee, and $30,000 to the Republican National Commit-tee.
``I do the best I can to support the SPI and that includes their lobbying activities,'' said Witt, president of Greenville, Ohio-based film and sheet maker Witt Plastics Inc.
``A PAC will give lawmakers the opportunity to understand what the plastics processing industry is.''
Witt is a former SPI board member who said he was taken somewhat by surprise when asked by SPI to chair the new PAC, since he has not been as active in the association in recent years as in the past.
However, he said, the plastics industry has been ``beaten up'' on some national issues.
``Here we have an industry supporting a PAC, which is not like a corporate PAC'' that would promote only one company's position.
``I've contributed to political candidates before, although I don't make a habit of it. In a sense, when I do that, I'm acting like a PAC,'' Witt said.
With SPI's new PAC, ``We're not trying to buy future legislation. We're trying to organize our contributions to support those who have shown they have the same interests as the plastics industry, based on their past records.''
Witt bridles at criticism of PACs as the tool of major pressure groups and private corporations to get their way with lawmakers. He describes himself as a small businessman with 100 employees.
``It's not just big companies who should use this process,'' he said.
SPI PAC committee member Edward Lundin, division chairman of SPI's Spray Polyurethane Foam Division and vice president of Lundin Roofing Co. Inc., in Port Allen, La., added, ``We're not going to buy any votes with what little we will be able to contribute.'' But, he added, ``We have to combat the anti-plastics followers.''
Lundin said his first taste of politics was his involvement last year in the election of Republican Gov. Mike Foster. Lundin said his involvement in the Foster campaign showed him ``what electing the right people can do.''
``This is the first governor who has supported small business in 50 years,'' he said.
Fellow SPI PAC committee member Harry Ussery was even more forthright: ``Not having a PAC put us at a disadvantage with members of Congress. There are places on Capitol Hill you aren't invited unless you have a PAC. We want to cover the few bases we don't already cover.''
Ussery, who will be SPI's vice chairman in 1997 and now serves as its treasurer, is president of Greenville, S.C.-based injection molder Beacon Plastics Inc.
``About all we have right now is an executive committee, bylaws and some early contributions,'' Ussery said.
``We're going out of our way to appear that we don't support any one party.''
SPI's emphasis is to assure that the executive committee is ``spread out both philosophically and geographically,'' Ussery said.
Other members of the executive committee include past SPI chief elected officers Robert Kittredge, retired chairman of thermoformer Fabri-Kal Corp. in Kalamazoo, Mich., and Ripley W. Gage, chairman of extruder and thermoformer Gage Industries Inc. in Lake Oswego, Ore. Gage is the immediate past SPI chairman.
Rounding out the executive committee are molder Frank DeVore, whose company, molder Tri-Plas Inc. of Ontario, Calif., was purchased and moved to Henderson, Nev., late last year; and Harold F. Wrede, president of machinery maker Battenfeld Gloucester Engineering Co. Inc. in Gloucester, Mass.
During a gathering April 29 of the SPI Machinery Division in Carlsbad, Calif., SPI government affairs manager Lori Anderson outlined the formation of the new SPI PAC.
``PAC money is like manure,'' Anderson said. ``If you spread it around, it does a lot of good. If you pile it all up in one place it starts to stink.''
Anderson mentioned several issues of importance to the machinery division, whose agenda could be focused through the PAC: product liability, worker training and international trade.
Since then, SPI has refused official comment on why the PAC was formed, or its timing.
Critics charge political action committees with tainting the political process because they loosely connect ideology with political contributions.
Yet despite the stigma, no Congress, Democrat- or Republi-can-controlled, seriously has considered reforming the system that finances incumbents' campaigns.
In fact, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, conclusively linking a legislative success rate with the amount of money contributed to candidates is a phony presumption.
From a survey of 213,000 PAC contributions in 1993-94, ``PACS in Profile: Spending Patterns in the 1994 Elections,'' CRP executive director Ellen S. Miller notes that, ``For all the millions that they garnered and gave in the 1994 elections, PACs actually accounted for only 40 percent of the campaign dollars collected by U.S. House winners, and less than one-fourth of the dollars that went to Senate winners. Contributions from individuals - most of them delivered in amounts of $250, $500 or $1,000 - formed the bulk of the funding for most winning candidates, especially in the Senate.''
CRP's concern is the amount of money.
``PACs are not the problem; big money is the problem,'' Miller concluded in the survey.