Lawrence Lessig On Campaign Finance Reform: Overturning ‘Citizens United’ Isn’t Enough

Lawrence Lessig (Photo credit: Ed Schipul)

By Corbin Hiar
iWatch News | News Report
From The Center for Public Integrity

In contrast with many other campaign finance reformers, Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig believes fixing the U.S. election system will require more than just overturning the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission Supreme Court ruling, which removed many restrictions on independent political spending.

Reversing this flood of political cash would be enough to satisfy most reformers, but not Lessig, who spoke last week at the Center for Public Integrity offices in D.C. Overturning the ruling “terrifies” him, he said, because “it imagines somehow that on January 20, 2010 – the day before Citizens United was decided – our democracy was fine and Citizens United broke it. But of course, the democracy was already broken.”

Lessig, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center on Ethics at Harvard, is concerned that if the decision is quickly repealed, it will take the wind out of an effort he’s leading to achieve a more comprehensive overhaul of the election system. Then activists “will have gotten nothing out of this moment when there’s an extraordinary anger and frustration that could be channeled in the direction of real reform,” he said.

The changes Lessig is advocating for, which include but are not limited to the eventual reversal of Citizens United, are outlined in tworecent books on campaign finance. He would like to see elections funded by a mix of public and limited, private donations, and a coordinated push by tea partiers,, and the Occupy Wall Street crowd – a diverse cast he collectively refers to as “outsiders” – to root out the systemic corruption of Washington “insiders.”

Lessig elaborated where Washington went wrong and how to get it back on track during his presentation, the highlights of which are featured in this video by the Center’s Emma Schwartz.

After the speech, Lessig, who worked as a clerk for conservative Justice Antonin Scalia before becoming an academic, added that he was confident that Citizens United will soon be reversed by the high court.

“I think it’s quite likely Justice Kennedy is about to flip,” he said, referring to the Supreme Court justice who cast the deciding vote in the controversial 5-to-4 decision. Although Lessig cautioned that he had no inside information, he said Kennedy “is completely surprised by how much damage this decision has done – even Scalia doesn’t like the world where all the money in the world is on one side.”

Republicans, who have so far been the largest recipients of this influx of cash, have come to celebrate the new electoral landscape. As the Center has reported, it isdominated by powerful “super PACs,” – political action committees that can accept unlimited contributions from corporations, unions, wealthy Americans – andnonprofit groups that can take unlimited cash from anonymous donors and spend half of the take on political activity.

These supposedly independent groups, many of which are run by longtime political operatives with close ties the candidates they are supporting, are legally forbidden from coordinating their political messages with campaigns. But these restrictions are tough to enforce and have been the subject of mockery by comedians like Stephen Colbert, who has launched his own super PAC.

In the political system reshaped by Citizens United, these rich, powerful, election-swaying groups are largely “funded by the tiniest slice of the 1 percent,” Lessig concluded. “And that suggests a problem.”

Reprinted by permission from iWatch News

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1 comment for “Lawrence Lessig On Campaign Finance Reform: Overturning ‘Citizens United’ Isn’t Enough

  1. RDA1
    March 3, 2012 at 11:32 pm

    As the Director of Renew Democracy, an advocacy group for constitutional amendment addressing finance reform, I would make these comments to Dr. Lessig and others advocating for an amendment for reform. In the Rootstrickers website you indicate that a public campaign financing model is requisite.
    It is essential that any movement toward campaign reform by a constitutional amendment firmly occupy the middle of the consensus of how to resolve the perceived problem. A constitutional amendment cannot be feasible if it is perceived to have an ideological bent and or is only palatable to one party or the other. For this reason a constitutional amendment requiring public financing of elections will never be adopted. Here is what Gallup says on the subject.
    This is one of those sad but true realizations that separate those that fail to do the public opinion research on their basic premises, or that pander to the ideology of their audience, from those who would actually see something adopted. 80% of the American public feels that the American political system is broken and that money is the problem. Conversely, when you ask Americans “Do you want to use your tax dollars to pay for political campaigns”, over 70% say no. This is how the question will be phrased by the opponents of this movement to amend. Unless you think it is possible to re-educate the American public to this extent the implication is obvious. No matter what you think of the ideals of Rootstrickers, Common Cause or the Brennan foundation, all whom we at RD admire greatly, public financing of campaigns is a nonstarter as a constitutional amendment or as the end result of a constitutional convention as Dr. Lessig advocates.
    The outline for an amendment that we propose is far more encompassing and will have a much greater effect than what is currently proposed by Dr. Lessig, Move to Amend and others. By stating “.The right to contribute to political campaigns and political parties is held solely by individual citizens”. The RDA renders moot concerns about corporate personage as pertains to campaign finance. What this powerful statement also does is to eliminate political parties’ contributions to campaigns. This eliminates much of the financial control the political parties have over our representatives. All one has to do is look at the prevalence of party line voting to realize how detrimental party influence is to our effective governance.
    The RDA proposal has a framework that does not rely on public campaign finance, would work at the federal, state, and local level with limited required bureaucracy and no controlling organization as to who or what party would receive funding. Again, I would reiterate that for a constitutional amendment to be successful it must have a super majority of support. That means a majority of support from both Democrats independents, and also Republicans who currently rely primarily on individual but on average larger donations for their campaigns. Any proposed amendment that would eliminate the current source of the majority of funding for either political party is politically unfeasible. Any proposed amendment that only limits campaign funding from corporations and not unions is also likely to be politically unfeasible. Why should any organization contribute?
    It is time for the campaign finance amendment movement to take off the political blinders, move to the political middle which is the only feasible position and to set aside the sound bite slogans and party affiliations for a powerful and elemental change which is what the public is most desirous of. Craig Clevidence director

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