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n the first year of the post-soft-money era, the nation’s most politically active organizations have added millions of dollars to their hard-dollar fundraising accounts — putting them on pace to pump more funds directly into individual Congressional races than ever before.

According to a Roll Call analysis of fundraising records for the first half of 2003, the 100 largest corporate, union and interest group PACs have raised more hard money from employees, members and other donors than at the start of any other presidential election cycle.

Last year’s ban on soft-money contributions to the Republican and Democratic parties had long been predicted to encourage politically active organizations to boost the size of their hard-money PACs. The analysis shows that theory holds true.

“With soft money out of the picture, it does make hard money more important,” said Anthony Kavanaugh, the vice president of governmental affairs for energy giant American Electric Power, which has nearly doubled the size of its PAC in the past four years. “We have made a concerted effort to build the PAC.”

The 100 largest PACs raised $68.6 million between Jan. 1 and June 30, a 39 percent increase over the total raised by those same organizations in the first six months of 1999, the beginning of the previous presidential election cycle.

Much of the increase was driven by corporate America, which posted a 43 percent increase in PAC receipts, raising $30.5 million in the first half of this year compared with $21.4 million for the same period in 1999.

Barry Hutchinson, a spokesman for SBC Communications, said he was pleased that employees of the telecommunications giant have responded to pleas from Washington to donate more money to the company’s political arm.

“Our industry is so over-regulated that clearly our employees see the value in our PAC being strong,” he said.

SBC’s PAC raised $515,000 in the first half of the year, fundraising reports show, compared with $367,000 in first six months of 1999.

PACs operated by unions grew by one-third, to $23.1 million, while those run by other interest groups — such as EMILY’s List — swelled 41 percent to $15 million, according to the analysis.

Despite the PACs’ increased resources, just a few of the companies, unions and interest groups have begun to shower contributions on individual candidates. PACs can contribute up to $10,000 to Congressional candidates per election cycle.

“You traditionally will see more fundraising in ’03 and a higher level of contributions in ’04,” said David Cohen, the head of public policy for Comcast Corp.

Comcast, now the nation’s largest cable company, raised $284,000 from its employees in the first six months of the year, about three times as much as the same period in the previous presidential election year.

But the company has given out just $108,000 to federal candidates while squirreling away $412,000 in the account to hand out next year.

Overall, the dramatic increase in the size of PACs means that corporations, unions and other interest groups will have millions of additional dollars to give to individual candidates.

However, the hard-dollar increase is unlikely to come close to matching the $217 million in soft money that various interest groups contributed to the national political parties in 2002.

Not surprisingly, some of the companies that contributed the most soft money in the 2001-02 campaign season reported the most growth in the size of their hard-dollar PACs.

The top 10 contributors of soft money in the previous cycle boosted their PACs by a total of 70 percent from the first half of 1999.

Microsoft, the fourth-largest corporate contributor of soft money in 2001-02, jacked up its PAC receipts nine-fold during the period, from $31,000 in the first half of 1999 to $320,000 so far this year.

Other interest groups that have put more emphasis on their PACs in the past four years include Northrop Grumman, which has increased PAC receipts 344 percent since the first half of 1999; Wal-Mart, 492 percent; Pfizer, 106 percent; and Duke Energy, 500 percent.

“People are deciding that they want to get more involved in the process,” said Dan Fogleman, a spokesman for Wal-Mart.

Not all businesses have adjusted to the post-soft-money era.

Three of the top 10 corporate soft-money contributors last cycle — Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae and the Houston-based law firm Williams Bailey — have yet to open PACs to raise hard money.

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