Small Change: Money, Political Parties, and Campaign Finance Reform

By Garrett, R. Sam | The Cato Journal, Spring-Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Small Change: Money, Political Parties, and Campaign Finance Reform


Garrett, R. Sam, The Cato Journal


Small Change: Money, Political Parties, and Campaign Finance Reform

Raymond J. La Raja

Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008, 304 pp.

Ray La Raja has written one of the most provocative campaign finance books in recent memory. Small Change causes the reader to struggle with fundamental "truths" about money and politics, to revisit old questions, and to ask new ones. La Raja directly challenges prevailing scholarship--and popular wisdom--concerning the purposes and origins of campaign finance regulation and its effect on political parties. The dual focus on campaign finance and American political parties is arguably the book's greatest strength. (La Raja generally uses the term "regulation" broadly, although his focus is on major changes in law rather than on regulations, such as those issued by the Federal Election Commission. For expediency, this review also uses the term "regulation" to encompass both federal campaign finance law and agency regulations.)

In Small Change, La Raja contends that neither campaign finance regulation nor parties can be studied in isolation. Rather, he argues, the two are inextricably linked. For La Raja, a century of campaign finance regulation has shaped every aspect of political parties, particularly organizationally and financially. The relationship La Raja describes is, essentially, a symbiotic one: regulation shapes parties, and parties (especially factions within parties) both adapt to that regulation and try to change it to their advantage.

Small Change makes one primary argument: that campaign finance regulation has been the result of a competition for electoral resources among various factions within both the major national parties--not a Progressive political tradition rooted in anti-corruption and good-government sentiment, as most contemporary works imply. La Raja does not suggest that Progressive-style reform is disingenuous. Indeed, he recognizes that Progressivism, rooted in Mugwump politics of the late-1800s, emphasized regulation of parties and has been a driving force behind campaign finance regulation both before and after the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) was enacted, and amended primarily in the 1970s. La Raja does argue, however, that many explanations of the history of campaign finance regulation prematurely stop with--or simply accept--what he calls the "public interest perspective." La Raja also isn't satisfied with another prominent school of thought, the "rational choice" perspective. La Raja summarizes his objection to the latter because it assumes self-interest among policy actors "but ignores the tug and pull of factional struggles that give rise to specific reforms" (pp. 201-02).

Rather than adopting either the public interest or rational choice perspectives, La Raja turns to historical analysis. Especially in the first four chapters, Small Change presents a detailed account of campaign finance regulation from the late 1800s through the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA). This includes a review of major legislation (and, in some cases, related litigation), such as the Federal Corrupt Practices Act, the Hatch Acts, and the Taft-Hartley Act.

In doing so, La Raja rejects the common contention that FECA was the first major regulation of money in American politics. Instead, he argues that FECA and other major changes in law were, in fact, a continuation of a long tradition of competition among party factions. As La Raja explains:

   The reform dynamic is multlayered.... Each major party possesses
   unique electoral resources derived from the different constellation
   of constituencies that support them. Party leaders must ensure that
   these resources are protected from "harmful" reforms, while
   foisting regulations that typically impair the resources of the
   other major party. This partisan explanation of reform has been
   made by others in various contexts, but I also believe it falls
   well short of explaining how and why reforms have passed. … 

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