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Nonfiction in Brief

HONEST GRAFT Big Money and the American Political Process by Brooks Jackson (Knopf: $18.95)

October 16, 1988|Alex Raksin

It would be easy to dismiss this book's implicit message--America has strayed from its mission as a "government by and for the people"--were Brooks Jackson coming from right or left field, but he is in fact a senior reporter at the Wall Street Journal, and his extensively documented conclusion that courting big money has become more important to politicians than serving the public reflects the views of many Republicans and Democrats. Jackson's conclusion still seems counter-intuitive, for no one is likely to follow us into the voting booth in November and tell us which holes to punch.

But before we can even enter that booth, Jackson argues, our choices have been limited dramatically. For one, it has become next to impossible for challengers to raise the ever-larger sums needed to mount a credible campaign. It is thus not surprising that 51 members of the House of Representatives faced no opposition at all in the '86 election, and more than 98% of the incumbents who ran were re-elected. Challengers who do manage to get on the ticket, moreover, must seek special-interest funding if they are to reach the public through TV commercials and polls; ironically, though, this funding, largely from political action committees (PACS) appreciably limits what candidates can say during a campaign.

The pressure on office-holders is even greater, Jackson demonstrates. Rather than solving social problems at their root or representing the wishes of the majority of people in their district, elected officials must spend a great deal of time pandering to big-moneyed interests--defending particular spending programs, tax breaks and permissive economic regulations. Cynical readers might point out that Jackson is hardly the first to discover the power of money in politics--Jimmy Stewart grappled with that grim reality, for one, in the 1939 film, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." What's new is the growing degree of influence: Congressional candidates spent a record $450 million in the '86 elections, a rise (when adjusted for inflation) of 131% over 1978.

Jackson's reforms convincingly counter most of the inevitable criticisms. Most important, he suggests that authority be returned to Republican and Democratic parties funded by public subsidies (such as voluntary payroll deductions) rather than by PACS. Some of Jackson's solutions mitigate rather than solve problems. He says the annual limit on gifts to parties should be reduced to $1,000 per person, from the present $20,000, for example, which still gives an edge to Republicans, who have richer mailing lists than Democrats. Overall, though, "Honest Graft" is a superbly documented book with an important bipartisan message that voters cannot afford to ignore, even if their congressional representatives, dependent on big money for survival, probably will.

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