Change Congress: the Larry Lessig Launch


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.