Lessig on Modern Corruption: Subtle damaging influence of money in politics a systematic problem different from bribery
Democracy, elections and voting
In a new post on Election Law Blog, “Distances Himself from Represent.Us on “Corruption” and Campaign Finance Reform“, election reform expert Rick Hasen explains the latest comments by Lawrence Lessig, a widely respected expert on the money and politics. Lawrence “Larry” Lessig is an American academic and political activist. According to his bio, “He is a proponent of reduced legal restrictions on copyright, trademark, and radio frequency spectrum, particularly in technology applications, and he has called for state-based activism to promote substantive reform of government with a Second Constitutional Convention.” According to Election Law Blog:
Regular readers know of my concerns about how Represent.Us is trying to both sell its campaign finance reform plan as “anti-corruption” and confusion over whether the group means old style corruption or Lessig’s “dependence corruption” (which I see as a a kind of equality argument–though Larry doesn’t).
Today Larry posted this piece in the Daily Beast, which includes the following:
Represent.US is an activist organization fighting corruption in Washington. It has created (with the help of Trevor Potter, a Republican, and former Chairman of the FEC, Jack Abramoff, a Republican and former lobbyist, and me, a former Republican, with the word “former” strongly emphasized) the American Anti-Corruption Act, perhaps the most ambitious reform proposal to address the “corruption” in Washington in a hundred years.
But what is the “corruption” that the AA Act means to reform? Though at times, Represent.US has followed the McCain line—attacking the system of corruption that has evolved within DC—in its most recent work, the group has become positively McConnell-esque—except that unlike McConnell, Represent.US actually believes there is widespread corruption in the quid pro quo sense, while McConnell (and I for that matter) believe there is not.
Congressman Jim Himes (D-CT) is Represent.US’s latest target. This former Goldman Sachs partner has frustrated many progressives by working hard to deregulate Wall Street. In a completely tasteless online ad sponsored by Represent.US, a fake lobbyist approaches Himes at an event carrying a bag full of cash. He opens his conversation by thanking Himes for “taking the lead” on the Wall Street deregulation bills. Himes responds that “Well, I don’t hear that often.” But then the fake lobbyist “accidentally” spills wads of cash onto the floor. Himes, appropriately enough, walks away from the fake lobbyist without saying a word. Security quickly escorts the fake lobbyist out of the event.
This ad is wrong, because its conception of corruption is wrong. Jim Himes is not “corrupt” in the sense that McConnell means. He works within a corrupt system, in the sense that McCain tried to explain. Within that system, members must fund their campaigns in ways that certainly destroys the integrity of the system. But this isn’t the cash-for-favors culture of the Gilded Age. The “system,” as McCain had explained, certainly destroys the “integrity” of Congress. Quoting Webster’s, McCain rightly argues that “corruption” means “the impairment of integrity, virtue or moral principle.” But you don’t need to allege quid pro quo bribery to prove that the “integrity” of Congress has been impaired. What you need are a pair of eyes, or a paycheck that doesn’t depend upon the survival of the existing system.