Congressional reform advocate Lawrence Lessig this week delivered a powerful lecture in the nation's capital showing that control of elections by the wealthy is vastly greater than commonly understood.
Just 159 wealthy U.S. donors provided as much presidential funding as all small donors combined, according to 2008 statistics that Lessig cited as the most recent available. Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor, argued that this small pool of donors essentially decides who is eligible to run for president on the major parties.
Lessig, who disclosed that his given name is the now-unpopular “Lester,” said the effect of current campaign funding is as if the entire United States were ruled in a renamed “Lester-land” by a few people each carrying that name and strongly felt agendas. Lessig, shown at left at the podium, spoke as part of a forum presented by the Cato Institute, Campaign Finance after Citizens United: What Happened? What Now?
Other speakers from both major political parties included Robert Bauer, general counsel for the Obama 2012 campaign, and Federal Election Commission member Dan McGahn, a Republican appointed by President George W. Bush.
I strongly recommend you watch the three-hour video archived by C-SPAN, especially the Lessig segment that began the second panel. “Every time I follow Larry I'm reminded I'm not Mick Jagger,” commented the next speaker, John Samples, director of Cato's Center for Representative Government. In the C-SPAN photo at right, Samples is seated. Bauer is at the podium.
Panelists repeatedly stressed that genuine reform of the troubled system is difficult, in part because “reform” efforts often create new problems. Samples, for example, was among the speakers who argued that a Constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision would be both unlikely and unwise. The Suporeme Court ruled in 2010 that Congress may not prohibit spending on political speech by corporations. Samples noted that the ruling allowed the advocacy group Citizens United to promote a movie opposing the political career of Hillary Clinton, which he described as political speech that should be allowed.
Among Lessig's insights was his comment that corruption in campaign finance is so widespread that members of the Senate and House encourage donations by stalling on taking action to solve the nation's problems. Such stalling tactics as temporary or delayed legislation, he said, create a necessity for lobbyists to keep spending money. Examples of such temporary fixes abound in current tax and budget negotations, as noted in a Washington Post column excerpted below.