By Eric Geller
American political activist and Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig stressed the need for a constitutional convention to address rampant congressional corruption during his speech at Kenyon on Tuesday, Sept. 27. Lessig focused his attention on the pervasive corruption plaguing the U.S. Congress. Lessig’s most recent book, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress – and a Plan to Stop It, is set for publication in early October. He shared his thoughts on the corruption of the American republic in his presentation sponsored by Kenyon’s Center for the Study of American Democracy.
Lessig began by accusing the U.S. government of losing efficacy. Citizens are understandably frustrated with their representatives in light of this inaction, he said. The only federal government institution to enjoy the support of a majority of Americans is the Supreme Court, according to a recent poll. The Supreme Court, he pointed out, is also the only undemocratic organ of the federal government.
Lessig also spoke about the continual extension of certain provisional parts of the U.S. tax code that began under the Reagan administration.
Essentially, Lessig said, lawmakers raised funds for their reelection campaigns by projecting the illusion that tax provisions were in jeopardy of not being renewed.
Sugar tariffs, corn subsidies, shadow banking and government guarantees of financially troubled businesses were among the other issues that Lessig touched on during his overview of congressional corruption. Incidents like the ongoing recession and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill have caused 75 percent of Americans to believe that money produces results in Congress, according to Lessig. As he pointed out, more Americans trusted the British crown in 1776 than trust Congress in 2011. This distrust of American politics also has electoral ramifications, Lessig said. Some Americans chose not to vote in the 2008 presidential election because they believed the outcome would have no effect on the government.
Members of Congress, Lessig said, have developed a “sixth sense” about how their legislative decisions will affect their prospects for reelection. He considers this incessant focus on reelection a distraction from the purpose of Congress.
The effect financial contributions have on congressional decision-making also has undemocratic aspects, Lessig said. He noted that the preferences of America’s most affluent citizens tend to become policy, which usually puts the course of American affairs at odds with the wants and needs of the bottom 90 percent of Americans. The country’s founders, he said, wanted Congress to depend on the will of the American people, but this principle has been lost.
Lessig wants to enable citizens to become Congress’ funders in a more comprehensive sense. He argued for a shift from special interest funding to small-dollar contributions that states would amplify. He pointed to the promises of Republican presidential hopeful Charles “Buddy” Roemer, who has pledged to only take individual donations up to $100, to refuse political action committee (PAC) money and to fully disclose who donates to his 2012 campaign. Lessig praised Roemer’s donation pledge and said that if the majority of legislators agreed to fund their campaigns this way, Americans would at least trust the interests and motivations of their representatives.
After observing that congressional self-regulation in the form of a campaign finance reform statute was virtually impossible, Lessig proposed a number of solutions to the problem of corruption. A radical one would be to have a presidential candidate promise to hold Congress hostage until they reformed their campaign-funding practices and then to resign once the system had been fixed, he said. Presumably, such a candidate would receive support from the electorate based on the premise that this achievement would be his or her sole act as president, he added.
An option Lessig found more appealing, however, was for the American people to hold a constitutional convention to propose much-needed amendments to the nation’s governing document. The problem is that, as Lessig explained it, Americans generally fear holding a constitutional convention. “There’s extreme skepticism out there,” Lessig said.
In Lessig’s opinion, the best way to convince Americans that constitutional conventions are not to be feared is to hold “mock conventions” aimed at familiarizing the electorate with the convention’s process, purpose and outcome. He suggested randomly selecting 300 people and gathering them for a discussion of the “fundamental problems facing our Constitution.” Organizing and holding a series of conventions like this would be, in Lessig’s words, “among the most impressive political work that this nation has seen.”
In a political environment where members of Congress are often limited by what will help them raise the most money, these conventions would give average citizens more of a voice in the direction of the country, according to Lessig. “This is the one sport where amateurs might actually be better than the professionals,” he said.
To those who reject the idea of forming a constitutional convention, Lessig said, “What do we do? Because the fact is, I don’t think we have a choice about whether we are going to address the fundamental challenges facing our government.”
Finally, Lessig brought up the issue of blame and responsibility. In his opinion, the responsibility lies not with “the evil people” but with “the decent people” – in other words, us. “[We] are responsible and need to fix [corruption],” he said.
It is the American public’s passivity that has enabled the continuation of ongoing national problems, according to Lessig. “We have lost [our] republic, and we all as citizens have to act to get it back,” he said.