Lawrence Lessig‘s plea to members of Congress wasn’t exactly diplomatic: “End the humiliation that is your life, the embarrassment that is our representative democracy.”
The Harvard law professor was referring to the outsize role fundraising plays in lawmakers’ schedules, and surveys showing that the most people believe the current system keeps them from being heard. And Lessig thinks politicians aren’t talking about it enough.
“As a Democrat who desperately wants to see Hillary Clinton elected, what I fear is that there’s not enough of a recognition in this campaign about that frustration,” Lessig said to a packed bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Caucus discussion Thursday on Capitol Hill.
Lessig himself tried and failed to reach the position Clinton secured as Democratic nominee for president. He ran his short-lived campaign on a campaign finance overhaul plan, promising to step down as soon as the package passed. Two months later, Lessig dropped out; his poll numbers never rose high enough for him to be included on the Democratic debate stage.
Two years earlier, he’d formed a super PAC called Mayday PAC that spent $7.6 million to support candidates that backed changing how campaigns are funded. It didn’t work out well: Only one of the candidates won — a House member who had a safe seat to begin with.
Lessig continues to push his “plan to save democracy.” He proposed a voucher system, where taxpayers would get a $50 tax refund and use it to donate to congressional candidates who agreed to opt in to the program: If they accepted the vouchers, the only other funds they could take would be individual contributions of $100 or less. Lessig also pushes for matching public funds for campaigns that forgo PAC money.
“It would change the business model of fundraising,” Lessig said.
Where Lessig sees transformative possibilities, some conservative First Amendment advocates aren’t so enthused. Imposing limits and restrictions on campaign financing denies people opportunities to exercise their democratic rights, said Joel Gora, Brooklyn Law School professor who worked on the Buckley v. Valeo Supreme Court case that struck down major campaign finance restrictions.
“I think vouchers are a great idea, but without limiting the resources or amount of money of any group,” Gora said. “If you want to have subsidies, we deregulation types like to say, ‘Have floors without ceilings.’”
Others worry about how far the government control would extend.
“When the government is handing out a lot of money to campaigns, it will have an interest that the money isn’t misused and that comes with a lot of risk over the long run,” said David Keating, president of the conservative Center for Competitive Politics, a nonprofit that advocates for less donor disclosure and higher — or no — limits. “They might want to start controlling what the candidates are allowed to say, like maybe they’ll say there are too many negative ads.”
One of the attendees, Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Penn.), wanted to hear Lessig’s thoughts on his reform plan before he had to rush off to call donors (yes, he went there). Boyle said 85 percent of his spending went to TV advertising, so he wanted a bill to give free TV time for candidates that qualify.
“The challenge that you face is the Supreme Court has made it incredibly difficult to regulate the demand side,” Lessig said. “I’m not sure there is a constitutional power to do much of that.”
While the government can regulate the broadcast industry’s use of airwaves in the public interest, it does not have that same authority over cable and the internet.
“And let’s face it, broadcast ads are going the way of the telegraph,” Keating said. “More people are consuming their news and videos online, so if you mandated free broadcast time it will be totally irrelevant in the not-too-distant future.”
The caucus cofounder, Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) plugged the constitutional amendment he’s proposed to eliminate PACs and super PACs, leaving individuals and public financing as the only ways to support or oppose someone running for public office.
McNerney’s caucus co-chair, however, didn’t seem optimistic about the chances of the reform proposals.
“We have bitched and complained about this system for so long…but unless there’s a scandal, nothing will happen,” said Rep. Walter Jones, Jr. (R-N.C.).
Lessig said the public couldn’t wait for another Watergate to push for changes.
“There’s no crime here in what they’re doing, and if what you need is crime to get change, I’m afraid you won’t get change,” Lessig said.