Hats Off to Larry

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When Larry Lessig launched his "Change Congress" beta, I liveblogged it. Chris Hayes of the Nation followed up with the professor and came up with this fascinating profile of the man, which reveals in a little more detail what he wants to do. Policy (leaving aside tech and copyright policy) seems to matter less than activism and openness.

In today's terms, you might call it the Medicare Part D problem: even when Congress starts out with a laudable policy goal, like providing prescription drugs for seniors, by the time the legislation gets through both houses it amounts to little more than a grab bag of giveaways to politically connected business interests. Case in point: the recent Senate-passed Foreclosure Prevention Act, which contains $25 billion in tax breaks for home-builders and other businesses while doing very little to justify its name. The reason for this is straightforward: the amount of money spent on lobbying in the last Congressional session was $2.8 billion, nearly two times more than was spent in 2000. Overall, industry has contributed $14 million to Congressional candidates in this session.

This money, Lessig says, insidiously distorts Congressional outcomes and priorities because Congress members don't experience it as corruption. "Let's say you go to Congress," says Lessig, "and you believe there are two problems to deal with: piracy of copyrighted materials and welfare mothers who are really getting screwed by the system. You open up shop, and a million [lobbyists] come in and say we've got a thousand things to tell you about piracy, and nobody comes into your office and says we're going to help you with the welfare moms. So you shift your focus, but you never feel it. You think: maybe I could've spent more time on welfare moms, but I'm having a real effect on stopping piracy! That's the dynamic that is so critical here."

More Lessig coverage by reasonoid Julian Sanchez here.

NEXT: High Comedies

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  1. Amazingly, no one seems to notice how every round of increased “transparency” leads to even more corrupt lobbying. It was the first wave of post-Watergate “transparency” reforms that turned committees from being deliberative bodies into the current farces they are today, while simultaneously making it 100x easier for lobbyists to “get to” Congresscritters. And I don’t think anyone here needs to be reminded of what a miserable failure McCain-Feingold has been, even without going into how it trampled on the 1st Amendment.

    The problem is not that Congress isn’t “transparent” enough, the problem is that it has the power to sell what the lobbyists are seeking to buy in the first place.

  2. “””by the time the legislation gets through both houses it amounts to little more than a grab bag of giveaways to politically connected business interests.”””

    Your state might elect a poor person to serve in Congress, but he/she won’t return that way.

  3. Exactly. If a politician announced very plainly and clearly that he didn’t believe in intellectual property, he’d have no lobbyists stuffing his pockets full of money. It is only when a politician opens himself up to the idea of creating an elaborate legal or regulatory structure that the lobbyists come knocking. And rightfully so. If billions of dollars hinge on the placement of a coma or period, those most affected deserve to be in the room when those decisions are being made and their desire to pay for that access is only natural.

  4. I suspect that Lessig’s doing what he’s doing for self-aggrandizement, since I’ve repeatedly suggested a much easier, much cheaper way he could push reforms:

    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
    tinyurl.com/yvehpn

  5. Get out of my head, Weigel!

    I’ve had that song stuck there for about a week and I’ve not been sure why.

  6. “In today’s terms, you might call it the Medicare Part D problem: even when Congress starts out with a laudable policy goal, like providing prescription drugs for seniors…”

    There’s your problem right there. It is not a “laudable” policy goal to use the government to confiscate and redistribute resources. It is REGRETTABLE when they MUST do it (in times of wartime emergency, for example). National welfare programs — especially of the nature of Medicare Part D — are beyond the scope of what the federal government was intended to do. No policy goal that requires the government to operate outside its proper, constitutional scope is “laudable” — unless you are a) a communist, or b) a potential beneficiary. As the author of that quote works for “The Nation,” and is of indeterminate age, perhaps both a & b apply.

    When you unshackle government from the chains of the Constitution, you pave the way for mission creep and unintended consequences of the type discussed in this article. I’m just sayin’.

  7. L. Lessig rules so bad. I wish the Grill-Aiders crowd would take this entry to heart!

  8. How many “the government is really screwing up so we need more government” articles is it going to take before folks start saying, “Hey. Wait a minute. What if we had less government?”

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