Republic Lost; How money corrupts Congress and a plan to stop it, Lawrence Lessig, 12Twelve (2011)


Some points in this book are thoroughly documented and ring true; others are slapdash and lead to speculative conclusions.

PLUSES: There is ample evidence that campaign cash influences legislative outcomes. Rising cost of political campaigns - members of Congress spend 30%+ of their time soliciting campaign contributions - large donors enjoy ready access -- legislation can have big buck consequences for businesses firms - decisions as to what issues will make the legislative agenda can be just as telling as roll call votes. Not that votes are typically bought or sold, but one would doubt the "special interests" are ignored.

Many Americans view the system as rigged, which might be thought to explain (although it seems a poor excuse) a common failure to stay informed about the substantive action (as opposed to political theater) in Washington, D.C. No wonder the job approval ratings for Congress are so low, e.g., 11% based on a recent poll.

Without necessarily agreeing with Lessig (a liberal who considers President Obama a "centrist") on policy goals, he is right that Congress has permitted some major issues to fester year after year. Deference to the "special interests" is one of the reasons.

Wouldn't it be nice to cut through all the rhetoric and get something done for a change!

MINUSES: It is unclear what purpose is served by claims that teachers are wildly underpaid and members of Congress should receive at least a million a year. There is just so much money to go around, and the author does not identify who should be paid less. OK, ballplayers, movie & TV stars, and top corporate executives make a lot, but do we really want the government to set their salaries?

Government or academic studies on product safety (e.g., does the use of cell phones cause cancer) are not necessarily more objective and reliable than industry studies. Self-interest also applies in the case of "independent" studies, albeit manifested in terms of research grants, influence, or ideological hubris vs. business profits.

The disdain for climate change "deniers" is overdone; climate realists have some solid arguments on their side. "Bexxon" et al. outspend their opponents in the public relations battle for and against continuation of a fossil fuel-based economy, but the mainstream media coverage is overwhelmingly slanted in favor of "green" (aka renewable or clean) energy. Taking this free advertising into account, Big Oil is by far the underdog.

The solution posed for the campaign cash issue is a system in which Americans paying taxes (most of us do in some form) would earmark the first $50 per year for the candidate(s) of their choice so long as said candidate(s) opted into the system by forswearing acceptance of any other contributions. They could also contribute up to $100 of their own money. No one could contribute more to candidates opting into the system, although they could underwrite independent advocacy (this might, Lessig notes, represent the system's Achilles heel).

Congress could not be expected to institute such a system on its own. Accordingly, various approaches are outlined - of which a Constitutional Convention is probably the most practical - for creating a political head of steam sufficient to win the fight.

Up to this point, campaign finance reform efforts have done more harm than good. The general effect of the McCain-Feingold Act and its predecessors was to drive campaign cash under ground, not weaken its influence.

Lessig's proposal might be no better. For example, it would (1) increase the present entrenchment of incumbents, complicating efforts to "throw the rascals out," and (2) accentuate (or at least not address) the current bias in favor of personally wealthy candidates.

Moreover, why would Congress suddenly be inspired to fix the healthcare system (GovCare looks like a disaster), streamline the tax system, balance the budget, stop illegal immigration, etc.? Neutralizing the influence of campaign cash would not necessarily motivate "We the people" to become more engaged in the political process, nor would it make the solutions to these problems obvious or simple.