Rebooting Democracy

Fri, 28 May 2010 12:53:35 +0000

Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig visited Dartmouth yesterday to deliver a public lecture with the same title as this post.  His topic was the nearly intractable issue of the role of money and lobbying on policy.  He has written extensively about the issue and has a nascent movement to show for it.  See "Fix Congress First," where he advocates for, among other things, the Fair Elections Now Act

I had the chance to talk with him over lunch. In the course of that discussion, there seemed to be four approaches, not mutually exclusive, that emerge in trying to reduce the corrupting influence of money on politics:

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1) Restrictions on who can give to whom

An example of this was what I proposed in my first blog post on this topic (here), in which I suggested that it ought not to be legal to make a campaign donation to a candidate who would not represent you as a constituent.  This would by my definition remove all non-voter money from direct contributions to candidates.  As an option, restricting who can give to whom is unlikely to get much traction with the Supreme Court, which seems to hold the view that money is speech and cannot be restricted any more than speech can.  I continue to think that's crazy -- some money in politics is speech, but plenty of money in politics is bribery.

2) Restrictions on what citizens can spend to broadcast their views during a campaign

I put all of the regulations on campaign advertising by private parties in this category.  As much as I see the corrupting influence that this spending has, I don't see any way that the First Amendment allows it to be restricted.

3) Public financing, whether by law or by very generous incentives

The Fair Elections Now Act is an example (and was referenced by one of the comments on my earlier post).  The hope is that with generous matching of small donations and some other opt-in regulations, candidates could run competitively for office without having to accept funding from special interests.  I am skeptical of whether these would work -- incentive schemes are very hard to calibrate -- but I don't see why some states don't run the experiment and see how it turns out.  (Maybe some states have done so and I am just not aware of the results.)

4) Regulations on the behavior of elected officials

A commenter on the earlier post suggested that elected officials be required to recuse themselves from any matter pertaining to an issue where they have taken campaign money.  A similar idea that occurred to me would be to change the rules on how elected officials could participate in fundraising that involved groups.  For example, what if we forbid candidates or politicians from engaging in activities that help groups raise funds -- no more $1,000-a-plate dinners where they give access to those who have paid a group that can make political contributions or run political ads?

What are your ideas about how to get the corrupting money out of politics?