Campaign-Finance Reform Has to Be Cross-Partisan

Democrats love to talk about cutting the influence of money in politics, but are they actually any more eager to fix it than Republicans?
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The vast majority of Americans—more than 90 percent in recent polls—believe it “important” to “reduce the influence of money in politics.” But is the business model of the reformers actually consistent with winning reform?

This is the fair but hard question raised by the strategy planned by Senate Democrats this summer to force a vote on New Mexico Senator Tom Udall’s proposed constitutional amendment to give Congress the power “to regulate the raising and spending of money” in elections. Forty-three Senate Democrats have cosponsored the resolution. Zero Republicans have. Zero is the same number of Republicans who have joined any of the proposed constitutional amendments now floating about in Congress to, as they are described, “reverse Citizens United.” Constitutional reform to give Congress the power to further regulate campaign cash is the exclusive domain of the Democrats (excepting, of course, the ACLU Democrats; the ACLU opposes such amendments).

I suspect Democrats like it this way. These amendments are catnip to the Democratic base, the equivalent of Obamacare for Republicans. The Senate debate this August will not change a single Republican vote. But it is certain to raise a ton of campaign cash for Democrats—just in time for the 2014 elections.

For Congress to actually propose an amendment to the Constitution requires 67 votes in the Senate (and 290 votes in the now Republican-controlled House). On the current count, that means at least a dozen Republicans would need to cross the aisle to join Udall (assuming what certainly isn’t given—that he could get a unanimous vote from his own party). And though I am no leader of the U.S. Senate, it seems to me unlikely that forcing a partisan fight on the eve of an election is a winning strategy for flipping at least a third of Senate Republicans. Nor does it seem likely—unless annexing Canada is in the works—that Democrats are going to gain a two-thirds majority in the Senate anytime soon.

Instead, if there is going to be fundamental reform, that reform must be cross-partisan. And in the upset election that removed Eric Cantor, the seeds to that cross-partisan reform are clear.

The single central flaw in American democracy today is not the speech within elections—not how much or how nasty or by whom. The single central flaw is the fundraising. America has outsourced the funding of campaigns to the tiniest fraction of the 1 percent. That tiny fraction then leverages its power to enormous effect. It turns otherwise conservative Republicans into “crony capitalists”—the tag David Brat successfully attached to Eric Cantor. It turns otherwise progressive Democrats into the “tools of Wall Street”—think Clinton-led deregulation in the 1990s. Bending goes both ways, pushing the principles on both the right and left off the table. The reality of the need to fundraise is the reality of everything in D.C. And thus it is no surprise that the largest empirical study of policy decisions ever in the history of political science finds a government responsive to the wants of the “economic elite” and “business interests,” but finds “average citizens ... have little or no independent influence.”

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Lawrence Lessig is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School, director of Harvard's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, and founder of Rootstrikers, an activist network opposed to corruption in government. More

Lessig's books include Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Our Congress -- and a Plan to Stop It, One Way Forward: The Outsider's Guide to Fixing the Republicand the recent Le$terland: The Corruption of Congress and How to End It. He serves on the Board of Creative Commons, MapLight, Brave New Film Foundation, The American Academy, Berlin, AXA Research Fund and iCommons.org, and on the advisory board of the Sunlight Foundation. Lessig holds a B.A. in economics and a B.S. in management from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.A. in philosophy from Cambridge, and a J.D. from Yale. Prior to rejoining the Harvard faculty, Lessig was a professor at Stanford Law School, where he founded the school's Center for Internet and Society, and at the University of Chicago. He clerked for Judge Richard Posner on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and Justice Antonin Scalia on the United States Supreme Court.

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