Change Congress: the Larry Lessig Launch

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I'm at the launch of the beta of Larry Lessig (and Joe Trippi's) Change Congress campaign: I'll post my notes shortly, but much of it will be up at Lessig's site.

The most interesting part, so far, has been Lessig's argument to conservatives for why we need public financing. First, the idea he semi-endorsed is not full public campaign finance. It is public financing for incumbents, an idea he credits to Paul Begala and James Carville. Incumbents would be prohibited from raising any money, at all, period. Their funds will come from the U.S. Treasury and be a function of how much their opponents raise. If Challenger Jones raises $1 million, Congressman Smith gets a check for $800,000.

Why should conservatives and libertarians support this, given that Lessig accepts a $2 billion estimate of the cost? "Why is government so big?" Lessig asks, rhetorically. "Because Congressmen must get elected. The insidious relationship between the desire to regulate and the need for congressmen to get re-elected drives the expansion of government." Compare that $2 billion cost, Lessig suggests, to a radically shrunken (and less busy) FEC and the diminishment of loopholes and handouts.

Lessig quotes Ronald Reagan on how people vote themselves benefits from the treasury. Lessig agrees with the argument, but not the reasoning. "The problem we face is the problem of crony capitalism. Not wealth pumped down, but wealth pumped up."

Lessig's Powerpoint presentation ends with a morphing of the Obama "CHANGE" sign into Lessig's "CHANGE CONGRESS" sign. "We need to take this important passion for change and direct it towards the institution that really needs to change."

The first question is on whether Lessig wants to limit free speech with public financing. He doesn't. "Some people say we spend too much on campaigns. I don't think we spend enough on campaigns." The presidential campaign will be a billion dollar race? Well, grow up: 18 billion flows around D.C. every year to influence legislation.

The second question is on Lessig's argument that people don't trust the medical community because of big business funding of junk science. "Drug companies and doctors who want to be in the business of approving drugs need to accept that they can't receieve funds from companies. You might say 'That's such a terrible deprivation!" I just don't get that."

Third question: How does Change Congress avoid becoming like the Ron Paul campaign, well-funded by well-meaning people but unsupported by "boots on the ground"? By offering "ways to engage" on the web site. "The more you can get people writing as well as reading, you turn them into soldiers for this. When somebody starts writing about why somebody supports a candidate, they are no longer a supporter, they are invested." (Uh, tell that to the guys at Ron Paul Forums.)

Fourth: What will happen when national security comes up, since the information won't be as public as, say, information about where farm bill pork is going. Lessig: "I don't know." A ban on earmarks could start the ball rolling. "I don't actually know how we're going to deal with transparency in secret expenditures."

Fifth: A fan from the internet pledges to give money to a candidate who endorses the Lessig platform. The room laughs awkwardly. "Of course, I didn't pay you to say that," Lessig says.

Sixth: What about gerrymandering? It's a problem and we'll deal with it down the line. "Public financing is extremely close to getting enough support to pass, and that would be the first step."

Seventh: A pretty basic question about why, exactly, congressmen are going to sign onto this. Lessig expects it to work like Creative Commons worked: "First get them in the space, and then let's have an argument." And he is not concerned about presidential politics. "When Hillary Clinton says lobbyists and PAC money aren't relevant to her, I actually believe it, because there are too many other issues."

Eighth: In order to put the scare into incumbents, can Change Congress start a database of all its members and make it public? "We can and we have." Lessig is incredibly optimistic about how quickly congressmen will start quivering.

This is, by the way, the techiest lecture I've been to in a while. Blogger Matt Stoller asks a question and half the room murmurs. Someone down the row from me flips open his Dell notebook (a rare non-Macbook!) and explores Stoller's Wikipedia page.

NEXT: They Paved Paradise, They Put Up a (Natalist) Parking Lot

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  1. Compare that $2 billion cost, Lessig suggests, to a radically shrunken (and less busy FCC)…

    It might affect the size and workload of the FEC as well.

    Interesting idea. Hampering the incumbent already has precedents in term limits and the like.

  2. I agree this could solve some problems, but it’s a hell of a restriction on free speech.

    Our system is built on the notion of openly competing interests. I worry what happens when that competition becomes a black market instead.

    Utopian models built on state control generally tend to fail pretty spectacularly.

    Hopefully this isn’t just applying the principles that have worked so well in the Drug War to our electoral process.

  3. The problem with Lessig’s proposal is that there’s no constitutional way to stop private interests from directly spending money to promote an incumbent’s candidacy. And as long as there’s some way to communicate a quid pro quo between the two sides, the purchase of legislative favors will continue. I don’t see how we can effectively distinguish between spending that’s truly “independent” and spending that’s accompanied by a wink and a nod between private interest and incumbent.

  4. Wouldn’t term limits be more effective, and easier to enforce?

  5. The other problem is that he calls it ‘crony capitalism’. It shows his cluelessness on what free market, free association, actually means, that he would relate it in any way with political corruption. Windbag.

  6. Weren’t people bitching about how supreme court justices couldn’t read plain English not a day ago, and now people want to tell me that in some possible universe, M-O-N-E-Y somehow spells and means the same thing as “speech”.

    I’m so confused, I need to lie down.

  7. Weren’t people bitching about how supreme court justices couldn’t read plain English not a day ago, and now people want to tell me that in some possible universe, M-O-N-E-Y somehow spells and means the same thing as “speech”.

    Of course it doesn’t mean the same thing. Rather, money in politics deserves protection because it is exchangeable for speech.

    Or do you think the Supreme Court could legitimately rule in D.C. v. Heller that, yes, there is an individual right to own a gun, but the state could make it illegal to buy a gun?

  8. Rather, money in politics deserves protection because it is exchangeable for speech.

    So, and let me know if I’m following you correctly, by the transitive property, chocolate bars are protected as speech, because I may exchange chocolate bars for money, and then exchange money for speech?

    Right?

  9. Neither chocolate bars nor money are protected as speech. They are protected because they can be used to buy speech.

    Any law restricting either chocolate bars or money for the purpose of restricting speech is clearly a violation of free speech.

  10. “Why is government so big?” Lessig asks, rhetorically. “Because Congressmen must get elected. The insidious relationship between the desire to regulate and the need for congressmen to get re-elected drives the expansion of government.”

    He’s got it backwards.

    Why do special interests and businesses give Congressmen money? Because Congress insists on getting involved in every facet of American life. Take away their power and there would be no point in trying to bribe them.

  11. Or do you think the Supreme Court could legitimately rule in D.C. v. Heller that, yes, there is an individual right to own a gun, but the state could make it illegal to buy a gun?

    Why wouldn’t they be able to do that? You can own a gun…you just have to buy it elsewhere.

    There are a number of municipalities in Illinois that allow you to own a gun, but they don’t allow gun shops/shooting ranges within their city limits.

    You can not buy a gun in Chicago either…and if the DC ban get overturned, I don’t expect Chicago to offer gun shop licenses.

  12. Why wouldn’t they be able to do that? You can own a gun…you just have to buy it elsewhere.

    The law could state that any gun owned without proof of purchase before such-and-such a date is presumed to be purchased with money after that date and therefore illegal.

    Or the law against purchasing guns could be a federal law.

  13. I’m forced to believe that Lessig’s goal is self-promotion rather than trying to change the system. I pointed out at the links below and at his wiki how he could spend much less money and have a greater impact, simply by encouraging people to hold politicians accountable at public appearances.

    Instead, he comes up with some hugely complicated and costly scheme.

    lessig.org/blog/2008/02/on_why_i_am_not_running.html#comment-22682
    lessig.org/blog/2007/06/required_reading_the_next_10_y.html#comment-18566

  14. Or the law against purchasing guns could be a federal law

    If the court rules that the 2nd is an individual right, a federal banning gun sales might be unconstitutional, no?

    I mean what good is it to say that you can have guns, but they aren’t allowed to be sold in the USA

  15. If the court rules that the 2nd is an individual right, a federal banning gun sales might be unconstitutional, no?

    The court seems to rule that the 1st is an individual right, yet it bans monetary transactions designed to exercise that right.

    I mean what good is it to say that you can have guns, but they aren’t allowed to be sold in the USA

    Indeed. Please go back upthread and see why I brought this example up in the first place…

  16. Ya cuz the problem with elected officials is that they are not more like Bureaucrats.

  17. [i]He’s got it backwards.

    Why do special interests and businesses give Congressmen money? Because Congress insists on getting involved in every facet of American life. Take away their power and there would be no point in trying to bribe them.[/i]

    Marc Nelson Jr. hit the nail on the head. I want to change congress a ton, but public financing of incumbents isn’t the way to do it. It just means that new opponents will be more wholly owned and won’t have to take as much money from their friends.

    I love Lessig’s other points, but this one is a killer. I’ll still pass it on to one of my friends and see if he’s interested, but I’ll bet he passes on it.

  18. I’ve got a better idea. Let’s read and obey the first amendment, and quit trying to keep people from spending whatever they want to spend to promote whatever candidate they like. As long as the candidate can’t conceal the source of the donations, I have no issue with an individual spending ten grand or a corporation spending a billion dollars to push their favorite congresscritter’s campaign.

    I’ve got to say, my respect for Mr. Lessig has been plummeting over the last couple of months.

    -jcr

  19. Bergamot | March 20, 2008, 2:51pm | #

    Wouldn’t term limits be more effective, and easier to enforce?

    Term limits on Congresscritters are unconstitutional. Then again, Lessig’s plan probably is as well.

  20. “””Of course it doesn’t mean the same thing. Rather, money in politics deserves protection because it is exchangeable for speech.”””

    That which is exchangeable for speech deserves constitutional protection? Are you serious?

  21. That which is exchangeable for speech cannot be restricted for the purpose of restricting speech.

    Why is this difficult?

  22. In my vision of taxes in America, we couldn’t afford giving 2 Billion to politicians.

  23. Why should the american taxpayer have to give any money so some power hungry incumbent asshole can get re-elected. Term limits would make a lot more sense.

  24. Do you mean the exchange its self is protected, instead of the item which is exchanged? That I would agree.

    Items themselves are not protected speech unless it’s a form of comunication such as a sign.

  25. Do you mean the exchange its self is protected, instead of the item which is exchanged?

    That’s perhaps a more accurate way to put it.

    For example, statutorily limiting campaign contributions, and thereby reducing the amount of money available to a campaign, is a clear violation of the freedom of speech.

    But surely it is also a violation of the freedom of speech for the state to raid the money sitting in a campaign war chest for the purpose of limiting the speech that can be bought in the future with it.

  26. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again
    No term limits
    No public financing
    No financing caps
    Just don’t allow pols to serve any two terms in a row

  27. Public financing is a great idea, but it shouldn’t come from the government, only citizens, and only in small denominations. That is how Obama has gotten to where he is. Let the natural forces of the Internet continue to do their thing.

    I am all for the transparency, and would like all politicians to agree to not accept money from registered lobbyists. At the same time, the outside organizations, basically anything organized as a 527, could subvert this, such as if Obama agrees to take public money and the Republican machine creates a slew of 527s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/527_group)

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