Monday, January 12, 2009

Lessig's campaign finance 'reform' message to Congress: 'Vote my way, or no money for you'

It was big news back in 2007 when copyleft leader Larry Lessig announced that he was turning away from his decade-long focus on IP issues and would instead tackle "corruption" through a new organization called Change Congress:

Right now, special interests have more influence over our political system than regular folks because of our broken campaign finance laws. These special interests pump millions of dollars into congressional campaigns each cycle, and as a result, they block real change on issue after issue.

Here at Change Congress, we believe that politicians should work for the people, not special interests. But it’s not enough to push politicians to stay out of the system of corruption—we have to reform the system itself. That’s why we support a hybrid of small-dollar donations and public financing, to keep big money out of politics.

Change Congress, which Lessig co-founded along with Democratic operative Joe Trippi, advocates a form of public financing, paid for by fees imposed on broadcasters:

[C]ongressional candidates who raise a threshold number of small-dollar donations would qualify for a chunk of funding—several hundred thousand dollars. If they accept this funding, they can’t raise big-dollar donations. But they can raise contributions up to a certain amount (such as $100 or $250), which would be matched several times over by a central fund. This would create an incentive for politicians to opt into this system and run people-powered campaigns.

No new taxpayer dollars would be required. TV broadcasters, who currently get access to our public airwaves for free and make billions of dollars as a result, would pay a fee that would be the source of revenue for the central fund.

A proposal worthy of debate, if not my cup of tea. But what's truly fascinating is the means by which Lessig is attempting to convince Congress to pass his favored legislation: getting supporters to threaten to withhold political contributions to lawmakers who refuse to sign on to the bill, in what he calls a "strike for change." The suggested pledge for "strikers":

I’m pledging not to donate to any federal candidate unless they support legislation making congressional elections citizen-funded, not special-interest funded.

So let me get this straight: Lessig doesn't like the influence of money on politics. So his solution is to have his followers tell legislators: "Support my cause, and I'll give you money. Don't, and I'll cut you off." Um, maybe I'm missing something, but doesn't his tactic increase the influence of money on politics? And smell an awful lot like out-and-out bribery? And what if his "strike" tactic works? Would Lessig feel comfortable with a Senator who said, "Of course I voted for Lessig's campaign finance bill. It was either that, or my constituents would stop contributing."? Would he feel any differently if the Senator said, "Of course I voted for the MPAA's copyright bill. It was either that, or the studio execs wouldn't come to my LA fundraiser."?

One's mind reels.... The world was so much simpler when campaign finance reformers wanted to ensure that lawmakers weren't influenced by campaign contributions. Or, as Sean Parnell of the Center for Competitive Politics put it: "The words 'fish,' 'barrel,' and 'shooting' come to mind right now."


  1. The good news is boycotts rarely work. And would any narrow cause be able to generate so much passion that contributors would withhold money from a candidate who tends to vote on a platform that they generally like?

  2. I think your complaint against Lessig's idea misses an important point: with Lessig's idea, the influence is distributed among many, versus a concentrated special interest that has more money/influence than many individual voters.


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