Lawrence Lessig (right) speaks to Jack Abramoff, a former lobbyist who is helping to expose Washington's legal corruption.

Credit: Madeline Ball / Wikimedia Commons

Innovation Hub 1/26/13: Can We Un-Corrupt Congress?

January 25, 2013


It's an understatement to say Americans aren’t happy with our government. A recent questionnaire by Public Policy Polling found that Americans actually prefer used car salesmen, the band Nickleback, lice, and colonoscopies to Congress. A colonoscopy over Congress? It's a striking display of low confidence in the system, and Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School and the author of “Republic, Lost,” thinks he knows why — legal corruption.

The center of democracy or an institution with an addiction?
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

An Institution with an Addiction

Lessig refers to Congress as “an institution with an addiction” — an addiction to raising money. He points to a memo compelling Democratic freshmen to spend four hours daily fundraising, two hours in a meet and greet, two hours doing congressional work, and one hour doing constituent service. Broken down, that means congressmen are encouraged to devote six hours to fundraising and re-election daily, versus only three hours to the work of governing. For Lessig, that’s a problem.

“These are good, decent people who go to Washington for the right reason,” Lessig says. “The problem is, like anybody with an addiction, the addiction conflicts with what they really want to be doing.”

In other words, while politicians may run for office hoping to represent the needs of all their constituents, the act of constantly fundraising warps their agenda, often pushing them to represent the needs of a small minority. Lessig cites the number of relevant funders of political campaigns as 1/20 of 1 percent of Americans. If you spend four hours a day on the phone with those funders, he argues, you can’t avoid having your views altered.

“When you learn Congressmen are spending 30 to 70 percent of their time raising money,” Lessig says, “you can’t help but be much more skeptical of whether they’re acting in the interests of all of us or whether they’re acting in the interests of the tiniest fraction of the 1 percent.”

Lobbyists also use money, and even the promise of careers on K Street, to influence political decisions. Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, calculates that between 1998 and 2004, 50 percent of the Senate and 42 percent of the House left to become lobbyists for an average pay increase of 1,452 percent, according to United Republic.

“It’s relatively obvious the way in which lobbyists can basically sell the ability to affect government policy to their clients,” Lessig explains. “It’s very lucrative for their clients to buy that policy, and it’s very easy for members [of Congress] to comply with the lobbyists because that’s the way the members can raise the money they need.”

Sheldon Adelson, chairman of Las Vegas Sands and Hong Kong-listed subsidiary Sands China, donated at least 30 million dollars to conservative super PACs during the 2012 presidential campaign.
Photo Credit: Bectrigger / Wikimedia Commons

Campaign Finance is a Civic Duty

For the past 40 years, Lessig argues, we have been trying to distance Congress from an ever-growing army of lobbyists by piling restriction on top of restriction. But in his eyes, adding rules to more rules will never be a viable solution to our ungovernable government.

“It’s never going to be enough to talk about restrictions. What we have to do is: we have to change the basic incentives of the system,” Lessig says. “The reason lobbyists are so powerful, the reason they have the opportunity to pay themselves millions of dollars…is because they play an essential role, and the essential role is channeling money into political campaigns.”

Lessig believes that we need to remove the vital role wealthy Americans and lobbyists play in campaign funding. How? Perhaps by creating a political atmosphere in which donating to political campaigns is presented as a civic duty, just like voting. Lessig envisions a world in which every citizen is given a voucher for an equal amount and can use it to fund the candidate of his or her choice.

Citizens are beginning to protest our current methods of campaign finance — but there's a long fight ahead.
Photo Credit: United for the People GA / Flickr Creative Commons

Creating Change Together

Lessig’s idea isn’t without precedent — Arizona, Maine, and Connecticut have small dollar matching systems for campaign fundraising, and Arizona is debating whether to add a voucher component. Congressman John Sarbanes (D-MD) has introduced a Grassroots Democracy Act that includes provisions to match small dollar campaign contributions, provide tax credits for donating to campaigns, and start a voucher program.

Bills like Sarbanes’ still have to make their way through a Congress that stands to benefit from keeping the current system in place.  But Lessig is hopeful that change can occur if we work together.

“We’ve got to build something that we have not built, I think, in 100 years: a Progressive movement, which we think of as a liberal movement [but it’s not],” he argues. “The Progressives were conservatives and liberals who got together to try to change the corrupt system of government that existed 100 years ago. We need … citizens who come together and say — how are we going to pull together the power we need to finally say to Washington, ‘Enough!’”

Lessig is on the Board of Advisors of, which supports the American Anti-Corruption Act and is seeking  a million citizen sponsors. 

WATCH: Former Lobbyist Jack Abramoff Talks Corruption on 60 Minutes

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