At times, everything comes together. I work for ActBlue and I read Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias regularly. Sometimes I see Prof. Lessig in the distance when I head out for lunch. Yesterday, Ezra and Matt both had posts up about Lessig's presentation on institutional corruption that I wanted to address.
Part I: Lessig's Argument
The video is rather long, so I'll summarize. Lessig defines institutional corruption as follows:
Institutional corruption isn't Blagojevich. It's not bribery or any violation of any existing rules … [it's] a certain kind of influence within an economy of influence. It's institutional corruption if it (1) weakens the effectiveness of an institution to serve its purpose or (2) Weakens the public trust of that institution, leading to the inability of the institution to serve its purpose.
In other words, it's not so much about corruption within an institution as the corruption of the institution itself, or the appearance thereof. That last bit is important in Lessig's formulation: if everyone believes the institution to be corrupted, then it might as well be. They won't trust the process, and they won't trust the results–an idea that's validated to a certain extent by the unfolding healthcare reform crisis.
If you're onboard with that, you're probably wondering what the "economy of influence" Lessig mentions is. Briefly, it works like this:
Special interests have a lot of money, and are in search of favorable policy outcomes. They hire lobbyists, who promote their employer's preferred policy. Legislators grant these lobbyists access because 1) running a campaign is expensive, and lobbyists represent a lot of campaign cash and 2) once a legislator's campaigning days are over, lobbying is a pretty good way to make a living. That results in legislation that meets the needs of the interests that dispatched the lobbyists. So they send more.
In other words, everybody is being rational, but that way of doing business undermines public trust, produces severely compromised policy, and ultimately results in broken political institutions.
Part II: What Is To Be Done?
Driving the whole process is the fact that legislators need money to run their campaigns. If you take that out of the picture, both lobbyist access and the lobbying industry dry up, which also handily removes the lure of a potential second career as a lobbyist from a legislator's calculation.
Lessig advocates public financing for elections as the best way to create this alternate food source for federal campaigns. The problem is that he's just spent 45 minutes explaining why that can't happen. Robust public financing legislation would represent a system-wide failure of the "economy of influence." Assuming the political climate even allows legislators to consider such a bill, chances are it would be imperfect and riddled with loopholes that interests insert in order to exploit them later. Additionally, as the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC demonstrates, even imperfect campaign finance law isn't safe. Clearly, that alternate food source has to come from outside the Washington D.C. economy of influence. Transparency is also crucial, as part of reversing institutional corruption is restoring public trust. People have to know where the money is coming from.
ActBlue does that, and more. We track donors and dollars in real time. We report everything to the FEC. We are, in a word, transparent. Moreover, we work with campaigns at every level of politics. Annise Parker, the newly-elected mayor of Houston, has an ActBlue listing. So do Democratic state legislators and members of Congress. They and their staffers are learning a new participatory model for campaign fundraising. We are building a farm system for the Democratic Party, and the results are real. Read the quarter-by-quarter breakdown of our 2009 numbers for the data on that.
Rep. Donna Edwards, MD-04, said it best:
ActBlue removes the K Street lobbyists from the equation … [candidates] can actually act on their own, and work on policy that makes a difference in people’s lives.
Donna Edwards defeated 8-term incumbent Al Wynn in the 2008 Democratic primary. She raised $500,000 on ActBlue from 9,000 donors. ActBlue unravels the economy of influence, one donor at a time. And we do it through methods I think Prof. Lessig would approve of. While I may disagree with him on the technical aspects, I agree with him on this:
We face as a nation an extraordinary range of critical problems that require serious attention … the responsibility we need to focus is the responsibility of the good people, the decent people, the people who could've picked up a phone. The responsibility of us.
I took the title of this post from a great blues tune by Albert Collins. There's a lyric that comes to mind whenever I get frustrated with American politics–and yes, political professionals do get frustrated with our political system, even as we work within it–that keeps me going. I think I'll end with it.
She said, 'I want you to be a winner / I love you, son, I don't want you to quit.'