How to Get Our Democracy Back (Lessig is Wrong)

congressforsale Since the Supreme Court Ruling on corporate limits last month, a lot of people have been discussing the role of lobbyists, special interests, and those that try to buy undue influence.  I’m ecstatic that this is gaining attention, because it doesn’t matter if you are liberal or conservative, I have yet to meet anyone that isn’t against this growing source of corruption in America.

Obama seems to think the ruling was wrong, and attacked the Supreme Court in his State of the Union address.  Lawrence Lessig wrote a nice article about our general lack of trust in congress, spurred by lobbyists and corruption.  He recommends the Fair Elections Now Act, which is good, but won’t prevent the corruption we have today.

Lessig follows the obvious answer – which is more spending caps and more legislation.  And while these are good ideas, they won’t work, because they don’t address real problem:

The government distributes too much money.

Why has the amount of money spent on lobbyists more than doubled in the last 10 years?  Because our government is expanding.  When we give money to the Federal Government to spend, special interests line up to assist with the distribution of those dollars.  If we just don’t let the Feds get the money in the first place, the lobbyists will disappear.   But as long as the money is there, the lobbyists will remain.

On the surface, it seems like contribution caps should be enough.  But the reality is that there are just too many loopholes.  Although the limits are allegedly $5,000 per candidate per year, it doesn’t take much browsing through to discover that individuals, PACs and corporations are all able to openly donate much more (example1, example2, example3).  Unfortunately, legislation to close these doors is difficult at best, and impossible due to freedom of speech at worst.  There are so many back-door mechanisms to donate money (e.g. “hey, I’ll buy you a ticket to come talk here in San Francisco”, or “I can run a TV show about you”, or “I can write an article for you in my paper about how bad your opponent is”), that it just isn’t realistic to expect we can possibly close them all.

Special interest groups have figured this out.  They’re not just buying a few candidates, they’re now buying all of them.  Consider AT&T, for example, who donated $4.5M to candidates last year.  If you believed that the $5,000 per candidate contribution limit applied, that would mean they would donate to ~900 candidates.  In actuality, they donated to ~430.  And since there are only ~500 Congressmen,  that means they donated to most of them!  And AT&T is not alone.  The National Association of Realtors, and practically every union are doing exactly the same thing:  buying “access” to more than half of Congress.

Once we realize that centralizing our spending through the Federal Government is the problem, two simple solutions emerge:

  1. We need to give the government less money to spend.
  2. When we do give money to the government, we should federate it through states and local agencies as much as possible.  Don’t leave decision making power in Washington, where a small number of politicians can be influenced.

This realization also highlights why Obama’s entire strategy leads to more corruption, not less. Obama spent over $700B last year in “stimulus”.  Did he really believe that he could distribute such a massive amount of spending without calling out the lobbyists in droves?  Does it really surprise him that when he announced that he wanted a federal takeover of federal student loans that Sallie Mae would kick up it’s lobbying to the tune of $8M?

The unfairness and corruption is caused by the lobbyists and campaign contributions, that is true.  But they are not the root cause, and they are impossible to stop without violating our own liberties (hence the Supreme Court ruling).  When all money flows through a small funnel in Washington, corruption increases.  Take the money back, federate our spending across the states and local governments, reduce spending and reduce taxation, and the corruption will decrease.

5 thoughts on “How to Get Our Democracy Back (Lessig is Wrong)

  • February 7, 2010 at 5:53 am

    I agree with you in principle. That the gov’t distributes money leads necessarily to people/companies lining up and making investments to be on the receiving end. But it’s hard to argue that many aspects of a centralized gov’t aren’t necessary or beneficial. We Americans are famous for pragmatic solutions – making the best of (ie, minimizing) the unavoidable inefficiencies of the system we have and need, while keeping a strong, innovative (albeit sluggish) central gov’t and policies. And I sincerely doubt that we would ever succeed in limiting Washington’s ability to spend by so much, that it would make a significant dent in campaign finance.

    The opening up of national datasets by the Open Government Initiative, allowing more people to see what projects need money where (and what doesn’t) seems to me like a good recent step in the right direction, and will hopefully help direct our resources in the right directions (instead of just to campaign contributors).

  • February 7, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    Van – thanks for your reply. Openness is great, I agree. But, data about where money flows has been widely known for 10 years.

    As for our ability to make central gov’t efficient – I think you’re just wrong. There are so many examples where our central gov’t has been comically inefficient, that I don’t believe it is possible to fix.

    The right answer is to distribute money locally rather than nationally. Why do we pay so many tax dollars just to have the federal government re-distribute it back to states and local schools? Why didn’t that money just go to the state to begin with?

  • February 7, 2010 at 2:52 pm


    You are absolutely spot on. I wish more American’s realize that the problem is not the corporations but the fact that Government has too much power. As Milton Friedman famously said, corporations are acting in their best interest by lobbying, but if government didn’t have power, no one would lobby politicians.

    I don’t understand why my fellow citizens don’t realize that politicians are not angels they are people like you and me, selfish, greedy and power hungry (even more than an average person). And to give them all this power and expect them not to misuse is like putting a horny man in a room with a naked chic and expect him not to have sex.

  • February 8, 2010 at 11:21 am

    But moneyed interests don’t influence government just to get distributions of cash. There are favors, too. For example, there’s a strong correlation between campaign contributions from telcos and the recipients of those contributions voting for the telco immunity provision of the latest FISA bill.

    The real solution is the make campaign contributions unnecessary. If politician’s didn’t need to raise tremendous amounts of money to run a successful campaign, then it would be a lot harder to “buy access” (and influence).

    Lessig is for the Fair Elections Now Act, but I never got the impression from his Change Congress organization that that kind of legislation is the end-goal. The end-goal has been to eliminate the need for politicians to raise funds.

  • February 8, 2010 at 11:47 am

    Adrian – agree – I doubt any one solution solves everything. But I stand by my claim – when the gov’t is doling out the money (and under Obama, discretionary spending has more than doubled), you get more special interests lining up to collect.

    If you do look at the, you’ll see that far-and-away the worst offenders of buying influence are Unions, not corporations. And these guys usually want new legislation to give them free stuff.


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