WMU News

New book examines problems in politics, campaign finance

Oct. 17, 2002

KALAMAZOO -- What happens when you mix an increasing proportion of voter apathy, the continuing influence of special interest groups and the deep pockets of wealthy campaign contributors?

The result is a misshapen political landscape where decisions are driven more by who benefits along the way rather than by the purpose of the legislation, says a Western Michigan University professor in his newest book. Dr. Peter Kobrak is the author of "Cozy Politics: Political Parties, Campaign Finance and Compromised Governance," which was recently published by Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc. of Boulder, Colo., and London.

"The use of 'pork,' or small appropriations passed by a legislature to increase the chance of a lawmaker's re-election, goes back to the building of lighthouses after the Revolutionary War," says Kobrak, who acknowledges that the problem is not a new one. "But that is different from cozy politics where far more money changes hands and where wealthy individuals, interest groups and professional associations achieve access and often beneficial treatment in exchange for political contributions."

The stakes are higher than ever for political action committees, unions, corporations and other groups vying for the attention of the president and Congress.

Kobrak, a professor of public administration and political science, examines numerous facts and figures that illustrate his point. For example, presidential and congressional campaign contributions topped $2 billion for the first time in 1992, and four years later, that number ballooned to $2.7 billion. Only two decades ago, says the author, similar contributions totaled less than one-fourth of that amount.

"Today," he says, "during every week of a six-year term, the average senator must raise $10,000 for re-election campaign expenses."

The money has to come from somewhere, and as candidates must seek more cash to get their point across, they often draw large donations from those who expect something in return.

At the same time, voters witness the uncomfortably close relationship between politicians and their financial backers and are turned off. As a result, they become less politically involved and vote in ever smaller numbers, says Kobrak.

"Cozy politics contributes to the increasing erosion of civic confidence and citizen participation, the warping of political parties, the denigration of politicians and the compromise of federal administrative agencies," the author says.

Despite the uneven playing ground created by cozy politics, it isn't too late for the American public to tackle the problem, notes Kobrak, who devotes a chapter of the book to the issue of engaging voters and reinventing political parties.

"The answer is to reinvent political parties by strengthening their citizen base and thereby reestablish the classic democratic balance between numbers and money," he advises. "Local and state parties should draw on the decentralized, participatory model that characterizes a number of modern global corporations."

Kobrak also advocates legal action against the two national parties, compelling soft money to be spent in the manner that Congress originally intended--to expand grassroots party organization. If the parties don't become more participatory now, he says, the nation will have to reinvent political parties later in order to save democracy.

Kobrak earned his doctoral degree from Johns Hopkins University and, from 1980 to 1988, served as Director of the WMU School of Public Affairs and Administration. A longtime professor who teaches public policy, the politics of bureaucracy and political economy, Kobrak has served as co-chairperson of the Michigan Public Management Institute and was president of the Michigan Political Science Association.

His work has appeared in such publications as The American Review of Public Administration, Policy Studies Journal, Public Administration Quarterly, The Journal of Negro Education, Public Budgeting & Financial Management, ASPA's Public Integrity Annual, and Administration & Society. In 1994, he edited the book "The Political Environment of Public Management."

For additional information, Kobrak may be contacted directly at (269) 387-8941 or <peter.kobrak@wmich.edu>.

Media contact: Gail Towns, 269 387-8400, gail.towns@wmich.edu

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