Op-Ed Spotlight: Lawrence Lessig on Reforming 'the Fundraising Congress'

The anti-copyright activist wants to amend the Constitution

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Journalist, law professor, and anti-copyright commando Lawrence Lessig is on a new crusade: to fix what he sees as a helplessly corrupt Congress. In a trio of pieces--a cover story in The Nation, an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, and a short web video--Lessig lambastes lax campaign finance rules that require Congressmen to fundraise first and legislate second. Lessig isn't shy about the stakes or the difficulty of his quest, saying it would be "the most important constitutional struggle since the New Deal or the Civil War."

How Congress Became 'A Bankrupt Institution' 

But consistently and increasingly over the past decade, faith in Congress has collapsed--slowly, and then all at once. ... A higher percentage of Americans likely supported the British Crown at the time of the Revolution than support our Congress today. ...

The institution has developed a pathological dependence on campaign cash. The US Congress has become the Fundraising Congress. And it answers--as Republican and Democratic presidents alike have discovered--not to the People, and not even to the president, but increasingly to the relatively small mix of interests that fund the key races that determine which party will be in power.

Why Congress Can't Govern

As fundraising becomes the focus of Congress--as the parties force members to raise money for other members, as they reward the best fundraisers with lucrative committee assignments and leadership positions--the focus of Congressional "work" shifts. Like addicts constantly on the lookout for their next fix, members grow impatient with anything that doesn't promise the kick of a campaign contribution. ... The perception, at least among industry staffers dealing with the Hill, is that one makes policy progress only if one can promise fundraising progress as well.

The Reforms To Fix It  From the Los Angeles Times:

What's needed now is a citizens movement to stop the Fundraising Congress. We need to demand change, including publicly-funded elections, a seven-year ban on lobbying for any member of Congress and amendments to the Constitution to assure that reform can survive the Supreme Court of John G. Roberts Jr.

How To Implement Those Reforms  From the Nation:

That one--and first--would be to enact an idea proposed by a Republican (Teddy Roosevelt) a century ago: citizen-funded elections. ... Candidates would also be free to raise as much money as they want in contributions maxed at $100 per citizen.The only certain effect of this first change would be to make it difficult to believe that money buys any results in Congress.

A second change would make that belief impossible: banning any member of Congress from working in any lobbying or consulting capacity in Washington for seven years after his or her term.

The State Convention To Amend the Constitution  By far Lessig's most sweeping proposal, he suggests the state legislatures circumvent Congress by calling national convention. The convention would amend the Constitution to overturn the recent Supreme Court decision revolutionizing campaign finance legislation. The ruling allows corporations to donate to political campaigns like people, deeply worsening what Lessig sees as the crisis of the fundraising Congress. He admits this convention is unlikely.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.