How to Get Our Democracy Back

That is the title of an essay by the always interesting Lawrence Lessig in The Nation. In my last post, I was pessimistic about the state of our government in its current form, drunk on funds from special interests. Jonathan Rauch, James Fallows, Paul Krugman, and a whole host of other commentators have been beating this drum hard recently. It's by no means a fresh source of discontent, the symptoms of this disease have been clear for years now, but even if it's just that my antenna are on heightened alert about this topic, the frustration among many seems to have reached a crescendo.

Whereas I may have sounded bowed by cynicism in my last post, I'm heartened by Lessig's essay. His expertise in law and government allow him to go further than others in proposing very specific possible treatments.

First, a restatement of the problem:

We may want peace and prosperity, but most would settle for simple integrity. Yet the single attribute least attributed to Congress, at least in the minds of the vast majority of Americans, is just that: integrity. And this is because most believe our Congress is a simple pretense. That rather than being, as our framers promised, an institution "dependent on the People," the institution has developed a pathological dependence on campaign cash. The US Congress has become the Fundraising Congress. And it answers--as Republican and Democratic presidents alike have discovered--not to the People, and not even to the president, but increasingly to the relatively small mix of interests that fund the key races that determine which party will be in power.

This is corruption. Not the corruption of bribes, or of any other crime known to Title 18 of the US Code. Instead, it is a corruption of the faith Americans have in this core institution of our democracy. The vast majority of Americans believe money buys results in Congress (88 percent in a recent California poll). And whether that belief is true or not, the damage is the same. The democracy is feigned. A feigned democracy breeds cynicism. Cynicism leads to disengagement. Disengagement leaves the fox guarding the henhouse.

Lessig deviates from some others in his diagnosis of the root problem. Some blame Senate rules, like the filibuster, but he notes that even if a filibuster-proof majority went from 60 to 51, lobbyists would just readjust their efforts to reach the higher bar. The filibuster loophole does seem to me an arbitrary violation of the general "majority rules" ethos of democracy, but Lessig's point is fair.

He also doesn't pin the blame on lobbyists, and as others like Rauch have noted, there's not a ton that can be done to rid the world of lobbyists. In fact, many lobbyists fight for useful causes. The key is to limit their sphere of influence so they can remain backseat drivers rather than the ones holding the steering wheel of Congress.

Lessig had hoped Obama would capitalize on his unique magnetism to deliver on true political reform of Congress, but after the first year, Lessig sees no signs that Obama and his team are willing to tackle such a historically ambitious agenda (to do so, Lessig notes, "would have made Obama the most important president in a hundred years"). Nothing I've heard from Obama thus far gives me much hope that he'll try to change the game. He seems to be trying to play by the rules of the game and reform from within, and that's what's frustrating those who voted for him on his reform rhetoric.

Lessig proposes two changes to restore integrity to Congress. The first is citizen-funded elections which could take any of a number of forms. One might be a bill that's currently on the table and that's titled Fair Elections Now Act. Essentially, candidates could opt in to fundraising system that would give them significant funds to run their campaign while also being free to raise money from individual Americans at a max of $100 per citizen. The idea would be to allow candidates the financial viability to campaign without having to turn to special interests.

The second change would be to ban any member of Congress from working in any lobbying capacity for seven years after the end of their term. By the time seven years were up, few firms on K Street would still find the Congressmen relevant enough, and candidates would stop thinking of their term in Congress as a stepping stone to being paid 6 to 7 figures on K Street.

Given the Roberts Court's recent ruling on Citizens United, the hurdle to reform is even higher. In so many Japanese science fiction stories, the most powerful entities in the future are corporations and not governments or states, and that recent ruling at least points to a possible path towards that type of future.

The Lessig article is well worth a read, and those in agreement can sign a Change Congress petition online. I don't know what effect that has, but perhaps as one more signal it has utility. As the saying goes, we all get the government we deserve.