WASHINGTON — SO you're planning to run for Congress! You've got friends who will chip in some cash, and you figure you can raise $200,000 to challenge the incumbent congressman. Well, here's some free advice: Forget it, you'll probably lose. In fact, during the 1988 elections for the House of Representatives, every challenger who spent less than $300,000 lost. Even challengers who were able to raise more than $500,000 found the odds against winning were 6 to 1.
This is the picture that emerges from a newly released compendium of campaign spending from the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. The study - no surprise - finds that in American politics, money may not be everything, but it's very, very important.
Not only is more money than ever being spent these days, the study also found that challengers have less and less money to spend.
Back in 1974, for example, incumbents were spending slightly more than $50,000 to win reelection. Challengers were spending only a little less.
By 1988, however, the average spending for an incumbent congressman had soared to $380,000, while the money available to challengers had climbed far less, to just over $116,000. In fact, while the cash spent by incumbents has continued to climb, the money available to challengers has actually fallen by almost $34,000 in the past four years.
The study concludes that the widening gap between incumbents and challengers resulted in what ``may well have been the least competitive [elections in 1988] in the history of the United States.'' Of 408 incumbent House members seeking reelection, only six lost - for a reelection rate of 98.5 percent.
Although Washington politicians, including President Bush, call for reform of campaign financing, this city's vested interests, including members of Congress, have a large stake in maintaining the status quo.
Many of those vested interests are represented by political-action committees (PACs), which pump millions of dollars into House and Senate races.
Back in 1974, PACs were only a minor factor in national elections, to which they contributed about 17 percent of all campaign funds. But in recent years, that level of spending has climbed until it reached a record 37 percent in 1988.
PAC influence is even greater in selected House races. In eight contests, for example, PACs donated more than 80 percent of all campaign receipts. Recipients of all that cash could be found in every section of the country, from California (where Rep. Augustus Hawkins [D] got 96.4 percent of his funds from PACs), to Pennsylvania (William Coyne [D], 92.5 percent), to West Virginia (Rep. Harley Staggers Jr. [D], 89.8 percent), to Utah (Howard Nielson [R], 85.1 percent).
Regionally, winners in the Midwest got more of their funds from PACs than anywhere else - 51.4 percent.
The study highlights another feature of recent campaigns, leftover campaign funds. So much cash was pouring in, the report notes, that House winners were able to put aside money for future races. Indeed, ``200 of the 435 House members finished the year with more than $100,000 in their campaign treasuries.''
The largest cash hoards were held by David Dreier, a California Republican ($1.25 million), Stephen Solarz, a New York Democrat ($1.16 million), and Dan Rostenkowski, an Illinois Democrat ($1.03 million).
Biggest spenders in House and Senate in 1988 were both California Republicans. Bob Dornan spent $1.76 million to hold his House seat; Pete Wilson, $14.66 million to keep his Senate post.