The tyranny of tiny minds and big money

After three years, it\'s time for Obama to deliver on his promise to curb money in politics

Published February 5, 2012 2:00PM (EST)

  Time for change           (Reuters/Jason Reed/<a href=''>Karefan</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
Time for change (Reuters/Jason Reed/Karefan via Shutterstock)

Four years ago, Sen. Barack Obama, candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, began to draw into focus a meme that for many of us defined what was different about his campaign, and what made his election critical. As he said in Columbia, S.C., on Jan. 26, 2008,

We are up against the belief that it’s all right for lobbyists to dominate our government — that they are just part of the system in Washington. But we know that the undue influence of lobbyists is part of the problem, and this election is our chance to say that we’re not going to let them stand in our way anymore.

On April 2, he told an audience in Philadelphia:

If we’re not willing to take up that fight, then real change — change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans — will keep getting blocked by the defenders of the status quo.

Two weeks later, Washington, D.C.:

But let me be clear — this isn’t just about ending the failed policies of the Bush years; it’s about ending the failed system in Washington that produces those policies. For far too long, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, Washington has allowed Wall Street to use lobbyists and campaign contributions to rig the system and get its way, no matter what it costs ordinary Americans

One week later, Indianapolis:

Unless we’re willing to challenge the broken system in Washington, and stop letting lobbyists use their clout to get their way, nothing else is going to change.

And just as he had said in Pittsburgh the week before, he repeated in Indiana again:

The reason I am running for president is to challenge that system.

This “challenge” was an essential element in Obama’s argument. Without such reform, the aspirations of his campaign — from healthcare reform, to global warming legislation, to reform of the banks, to an overhaul of the tax system — would not just have been audacious. They would have been insane. All the money in the world was not simply going to be lulled to sleep by Obama, the great speechifier. Only by effecting a real change of its power within the system of our government would the Obama agenda be even possible.

That’s because the system of government that we have now is corrupt. Not corrupt in the traditional Rod Blagojevich sense of corruption. Our Congress is not filled with crooks. Quid pro quo bribery is not its central crime. Instead, corrupt in the sense that the attention of Congress is constantly drawn away from where it would be focused if it were an institution, as the Framers intended, “dependent upon the people alone.”

It is not. As members spend more and more of their time raising money (estimates range between 30 and 70 percent), Congress becomes an institution dependent upon its Funders, too. And as “the Funders” are not “the people”— .26 percent give more than $200 in a congressional campaign, .05 percent give the max to any individual candidate, and just .01 percent of Americans, 1 out of every 10,000, give more than $10,000 in an election cycle — that dependency corrupts Congress. Seventy-five percent of Americans believe “campaign contributions buy results in Congress.” Barely 10 percent have confidence in Congress. This institution, the core of our democracy, is politically bankrupt. And it was therefore appropriate, indeed, essential, that the president make its reform the catalyst for any real “change.” If this indeed was to be “change you could believe in,” changing Congress had to be part of the plan.

Yet three years into this administration, we have yet to see the plan. In Obama's first year as president, reform of Congress was nowhere on his agenda. Then a year (and a day) after his inauguration, the Supreme Court, in its Citizens United decision, gave birth to the age of the super PAC. Yet his State of the Union address in response proposed little more than disclosure as a remedy — as if seeing the corruption more clearly was going to make Americans more trusting. And then, after his shellacking in the midterms, Obama said this:

We were in such a hurry to get things done that we didn’t change how things got done. And I think that frustrated people.

Yet still, there was no plan. Nothing in the reforms that Obama even hinted at would have changed the fact that it is the tiniest slice of America that funds the largest chunk of the costs of America’s campaigns.

And then there is this year’s State of the Union address. “I’ve talked tonight,” Obama told us, “about the deficit of trust between Main Street and Wall Street.”

"But the divide between this city and the rest of the country is at least as bad — and it seems to get worse every year. Some of this has to do with the corrosive influence of money in politics. So together, let’s take some steps to fix that."

Here, I confess, my heart skipped. Obama, I thought, was back. Obama, the reformer, the candidate talking about the change that would make change believable. Here I thought was the obvious lead in to a plan for change that would make it possible for sane souls to believe that the substantive changes that he promised were even possible.

So what were these “steps to fix” it? What is the plan?

Send me a bill that bans insider trading by members of Congress, and I will sign it tomorrow. Let’s limit any elected official from owning stocks in industries they impact. Let’s make sure people who bundle campaign contributions for Congress can’t lobby Congress, and vice versa — an idea that has bipartisan support, at least outside of Washington.

Seriously, Mr. President? These are the “steps to fix” the divide between Washington and the rest of the country? This would end the “corrosive influence of money in politics”?

Don’t get me wrong: Obviously, these changes would be good. The insider trading issue looks bad, no doubt, though there’s a real debate about whether there is any there there. Serious scholars crunching the numbers have yet to find a systemic advantage, even if a selective view might suggest something different.

But no one credible believes that the dysfunction of Congress comes from day trading on the floor of the House. And no one credible could believe that the core corruption that is our government would end if members of Congress were banned from owning stock.

Likewise with the ban on bundlers lobbying Congress “and vice versa” (though notice, nothing is said about bundlers lobbying the executive): It is certainly true that one core dynamic of the corruption of this government comes through the influence of “lobbyists.” But no one even seems to know any more who a “lobbyist” is. Former Sen. Tom Daschle tells us he is not “a lobbyist." He’s merely an “advisor.” Former Speaker Newt Gingrich promises he was not “a lobbyist.” He sold his advice and access, he tells us, as “an historian.” Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) promised Connecticut he wouldn’t lobby after leaving Congress. And he didn’t: He merely took over Hollywood’s chief lobbying association, the Motion Picture Association of America.

The point is not just about the individuals who find a way to skirt regulations. The point is about the obvious consequence of any plan that focuses exclusively upon limits. If you ban “lobbyists” from bundling, there will be fewer “lobbyists” and many more historians. If you ban advisors and historians from bundling, there will be fewer advisors and historians, but more CEO’s of lobbying associations. It is just an elaborate game of Whac-A-Mole, each suppression creating a new bubble, in an endless and futile game of reform.

The problem here is obvious: Obama has surrounded himself with tiny minds. “Audacity” has been banished from their dictionary. The most they can timidly suggest is the smallest step that has any chance of passing. Let’s get what we can, declare victory and move on. As if the battle was about making Obama a successful and popular president, as opposed to the battle to make this democracy work again.

The corruption of this government is a cancer. And you don’t launch an attack on cancer by prescribing good eating and exercise. Nor can you make change believable by pushing for reforms that won’t change anything in that corruption. What Obama must do if he is to make American democracy possible again is to speak boldly, not practically, about reform. He has to give us the big ideas that would actually have an effect, not the pathetic tinkering that only makes the lobbyists laugh. He needs to begin the process of persuading the nation that fundamental reform is necessary and possible. He must “take up that fight,” for unless he does, then “real change — change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans — will keep getting blocked by the defenders of the status quo.” He must stop, by his silence, defending the status quo. He must begin again the fight to change it.

This is the point that Andrew Sullivan’s repeated defense of the president misses. If Hillary Clinton had been elected instead of Obama, and if she had achieved precisely as much as Obama has achieved — which obviously is significant and important — liberals would certainly be “deluded,” as Sullivan calls us, for criticizing her. But Obama promised something more than Clinton did, and if there is delusion here, it is the thought that he could achieve even a tiny fraction of what he promised without this reform. Reform is an essential part of making the Obama agenda even possible. And so it is both fair to criticize the president for forgetting this essential step, and right to urge that he “take up that fight” again.

How? The clue is the throwaway line at the end of his supposed plan for reform: “an idea that has bipartisan support, at least outside of Washington.” For as much as the chatterati love to set the left side against the right, the real divide in American politics today is between the inside and the outside. There is a politics within the beltway of D.C. Within that politics, nothing real is possible. And then there is a politics outside the beltway of D.C. — where on the left and on the right there is cross-partisan support for the sort of reforms that would really change Washington.

Outside Washington, in the grassroots of American politics,  Democrats, independents and Republicans all support a radical change in how we fund campaigns. The bloated and bureaucratic “public funding” of the 1970s is despised, and rightly so. But a system of small-dollar, citizen-funded elections, either through matching funds or tax rebated vouchers, is supported across the political spectrum. Likewise with the mother of Super PACs — Citizens United: While there is a strong division among Americans about whether any one group should be silenced, there is overwhelming support for the idea of limiting the role of independent expenditures in political campaigns.

The president needs to appeal to this cross-partisan outsiders movement. He needs to inspire them to dream about the real reform that they could make possible, if only they would organize and demand the way they organized and stopped SOPA/PIPA. This president and this Congress are not going to change the economy of influence of D.C. But this president and the next Congress could — if Obama made this issue the focus of this campaign.

And if not Obama, then some other candidate.

And if not some other candidate, then us.

For the critical insight that more and more are coming to see is that the critical force in politics today, not just in America, but across the world, comes from the amateur, not the professional. From the outside, not the inside. That’s what MoveOn taught us 14 years ago. That’s what the Tea Party showed us 2 years ago. That was what Occupy Wall Street proved just last fall.

It is time we recognize the potential of these outsiders and celebrate it. The inside might be able to inspire them. But it will be they, or us, the outsiders, who will determine whether the cancer that is Washington gets cured.


By Lawrence Lessig

Lawrence Lessig is Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School, and author of "Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress and a Plan to Stop It" (Twelve, 2011). His latest book is " One Way Forward: The Outsiders Guide to Fixing the Republic" (Byliner, 2012).

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