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Inside Campaign Finance: Myths and Realities.

Inside Campaign Finance: Myths and Realities. Frank J. Sorauf. Yale, $27.50. Sorauf's latest book shows once again how little social science can teach us about how to revive our paralyzed, money-driven political system. Like an anthropologist collecting recipes from a tribe of cannibals, Sorauf studies and describes but doesn't condemn. The title itself is a bit of false advertising. Sorauf writes not from inside Washington's money machine but from his academic outpost at the University of Minnesota.

Despite all that has happened--the Charles Keating affair, the disgrace of Jim Wright, the return of the $100,000 fat-cat contributor to presidential campaigns, the collapse of electoral competition in the House--Sorauf's views remain pretty much what they were in 1988 when he published his very thorough textbook, Money in American Elections. Like most academics, he remains less than convinced that campaign money influences public policy to any alarming degree and is skeptical of all wrong-headed or doomed to disappointment.

This is not to say that political science is entirely irrelevant on this subject. It teaches a useful lesson about the effect of spending on elections, a lesson that the news media and would-be reformers would do well to absorb. The fact is that the more an incumbent spends, the less like he or she is to win. Incumbents spend more when they are in trouble, but the spending does little to change voters' minds. Challengers, on the other hand, always lose when they spend too little to publicize their name and campaign message. The political scientists' numbers teach us that the spending-limit proposals favored by Common Cause and congressional Democrats are based on a false premise. There is not "too much" being spent on elections; there is too little being raised and spent by challengers. Spending limits could hurt. Sorauf says, "The harm to challengers will increase the lower the spending limits are set."

But while political scientists are successful in linking spending and election results, they fail when they attempt to measure the effect of money on the hearts and minds of lawmakers. The latter is more properly the realm of the psychologist or, in extreme cases, the criminologist. A few years ago Sorauf siad, "There simply are no data . . . that would support the popular assertions about the 'buying' of the Congress." Although his view hasn't changed much, he does grudgingly concede that academic research on political action committees is turning up "a consensus about PAC influence." It shows that influence "tends to be strongest on the narrower, less visible issues before Congress." This should be of no comfort: S&L regulation used to be one of those "less visible" issues. Nevertheless, Sorauf clings to the view that PACs are legitimate heirs to moribund political parties. He syas that banning PACs, as proposed by President Bush, would be "probably the worst reform idea" some those enacted immediately after Watergate and "bad public policy."

In fact, Sorauf sees donations to PACs as evidence of a healthy political system. He seems genuinely puzzled as to why these donors don't fight against the movement to ban PACs. "Outlawing their political activity has not spurred the millions of PAC contributors to even so much as a whimper of protest or self-defense," he writes.

Sorauf has little patience for journalists--especially those in television--who persist in seeing cause-and-effect relationships between money and votes where political scientists see only correlations. He says the press suffers from a "neo-Progressive worldview," fundamentally distrustful of money, and that reporters are constantly writing "a morality play, with one simple plot." He scolds reporters and reformers for "tendentious rhetoric" about money and for "a disposition to attribute much, even too much, that happens in american politics to it." Sorauf has a point, but goes too far in chastising the press for failing to applaud the leveling off of spending in House and Senate elections since 1986. He implies that this "stability" of the system shows that everything is all right. It doesn't. A capsized catamaran is stable, but upside down nonetheless.

Sorauf says he isn't arguing against all reform, but it sometimes seems that he is. He sees a "grave risk" in the soft-money loophole that allowed $100,000 donations to pour into the 1988 presidential campaigns, but he would still allow party organizations to raise and spend such soft money so long as candidates didn't solicit it. Soft money is regulated only by varied and often permissive state laws, and Sorauf isn't about to tamper with states' rights: "The loophole is the result, at least in part, of American federalism."

Similarly, Sorauf concedes that the dominance of special-interest money is at least seen as a problem by the public. To counterbalance this, he favors raising limits on the amounts parties may spend on behalf of their candidates. There's some merit to this idea; it would tie candidates more tightly to their parties and correspondingly reduce their reliance on PACs and other special-interest donors. Republicans have more party money and so already favor higher party limits. To get Democrats to go along, Sorauf would let PACs and wealthy individuals give more to parties. But making the parties themselves even more beholden to special-interest money and rich donors is the very reverse of reform.

Ultimately, Sorauf gives up. He says the search to find disinterested money for politics is "not unlike the stork theory of human reproduction." Well, not quite. We know where the cleanest money in politics comes from: the U.S. Treasury. Political scientists are in on the secret, too. "In their heart of hearts many scholars of campaign finance would choose . . . public grants or subsidies without spending limits, the option they call 'floors without ceilings,'" says Sorauf. Such pure public funding would help challengers most, which probably accounts for why so few incumbents favor it. But rather than making the case for such reform, Sorauf dismisses public funding as politically unattainable. "We really seem to prefer private to public funding, but we reject the consequences of private funding. We want the consequences of public funding without the publid funding itself. It is a conundrum, and a conundrum witn no solution." Again, not quite. A solution could be brought closer to hand if political scientists would concede the limitations of their craft.
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Author:Jackson, Brooks
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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