WASHINGTON - A study of financial contributions to Congress reflects a growing political astuteness among large plastics interests. The levels of contributions - and where and when they are made - show that spenders are saavy. They know ``soft'' contributions made early in the traditional two-year election cycle can make a company a player in the national political process. Soft contributions, made to political committees rather than candidates, are unlimited by the Federal Election Commission.
For example, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, received the largest amount of direct contributions from the political action committees of American Plastics Council-member firms of any 1994 congressional candidate.
Hutchison gained $127,199 in the 24 months before the 1994 election from APC-member PACs, according to a review of corporate contributions to candidates from APC-member political action committees. However, that figure is roughly equal to the amount of money given by only two of the 15 APC member companies that gave soft contributions to the Democratic and Republican na-tional parties in 1995, according to FEC donor records.
The types of contribution differ significantly. Direct contributions to congressional candidates are limited to $2,000 from any individual a year, while companies are limited to $10,000. PACs are limited to $25,000.
``The main thing we see [from APC member contributions] is access,'' said Mary Wells, staff lawyer for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. ``The ordinary citizen can't give $5,000 to a committee or congressman. After access comes votes.''
Among the issues interesting to Washington-based APC is regulatory reform. As an educational, nonprofit organization, APC and its staff technically do not lobby, but Red Cavaney, its president and chief executive officer, was sighted at least twice at different Capitol Hill functions attended by lobbyists in support of regulatory reform legislation last year.
Wells expressed concern that lobbying by some or all APC members would not support a public interest position on issues such as the Endangered Species Act, the composition of the Environmental Protection Agency Toxic Release Inventory, or the Clean Air, Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water acts.
Wells noted that one company, Exxon Corp., cited all the above as topics for its lobbying in the current session of Congress.
Despite the national election finance trends, Ellen S. Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, notes, ``It's not only campaign contributions'' that help members of Congress decide how to vote. ``What's crucial are [lobbyists'] connections,'' she said.
``There are many big lobbyists who direct influential efforts behind the scenes. Their names never appear on Federal Election Commission reports'' as major political fund-raising contributors, Miller said during a May 1 news conference releasing the Center's latest report, ``Capital Lobbying: Money Played Its Part in 1995.''
Miller also notes that PACs amount to only 40 percent of actual campaign financing. The largest number of contributions, accounting for the greatest amount of campaign money for candidates for Congress, still come from the $250, $500 and $1,000 contributors not affiliated with PACs.
As of May 3, FEC records show that in the current 1995-1996 election cycle, special Democratic and Republican national committees exempt from contribution limits have received at least $679,500 from the 24 APC members active in 1995. The largest single chunk of that total, $208,750, came from Chevron Cos. in Concord, Calif., and Chevron Corp. offices in Washington.
Republicans received the lion's share of this soft money - $499,750 from APC companies in 1995, while the combined nonlimits committees of the Democratic Party received about a third of that, $179,750.
In 1995, a nonelection year, the Republican National State Elections Committee received $236,000 in contributions without limits from 13 APC-member companies. That is in addition to what the firms may have given to any number of state party organizations, or directly to candidates themselves.
One no-limit committee, the 1995 Republican House/Senate Dinner Trust, fetes slates of local candidates at dinner meetings across the country, often with a keynote speaker seeking national office. It has received $85,000 this election cycle so far from five APC members.
Soft money often is targeted by a national party to places it is needed most for advertising, voter education and get-out-the-vote activities. Federal election laws, written to limit the undue influence of private dollars on elected officials, do not address either income or expense limits on ``party building'' activities.
Washington-based CRP is a nonprofit political finance analysis group that categorizes contributors into business, labor and ideological categories to determine the contribution patterns of each. Business groups as a whole contribute more money to congressional races than the other two categories, according to the Center's publication, ``Open Secrets: The Encyclopedia of Congressional Money and Poli-tics.''
The encyclopedia notes that no business sector comes close to offering either party the dollars that labor PACs produce for Democrats. Labor unions topped the list of industries and interest groups most generous to Demo-cratic candidates in 1993 and 1994.
In all, APC companies spread $3.2 million of hard dollars across most of the 468 House and Senate candidates of both parties in the 1993-94 election cycle, down slightly from $3.7 million in the previous cycle.
The proportion of those amounts divided between Demo-crats and Republicans remained about the same for both two-year election cycles. In 1991-1992, GOP candidates received $2.4 million and Democrats, $1.33 million. In 1993-94, Republicans received $2.2 million, and Democrats, $1.13
A review of similar contributions between January and June 1995-the latest material available-shows Republicans got four times the contributions to Democrats. Of $422,025 presented to national candidates from APC companies in the six-month review, $340,725 went to Republi-cans and $81,300 to Democrats.
Republicans outnumbered Democrats in both houses of Congress after the 1994 election for the first time since 1954.
In big Senate campaigns like that of Hutchison in 1994, one of the most expensive in history, CRP notes that a candidate can top many donor categories. The APC members who gave to Hutchison were part of the CRP's ``Energy and Natural Resources'' category. The biggest 20 contributors to that industry-segment PAC include APC members Exxon, Chevron, Amoco, Arco and Mobil.
Hutchison also topped the list of Senate campaign fund PAC recipients in agriculture, finance and real estate, transportation, and construction. She was the second-largest recipient in tele-communications and defense, according to CRP figures.