Last month, in January, Rootstrikers’ founder Lawrence Lessig led 200 followers from 20 states on a 185-mile march from one end of New Hampshire to the other. The march was the first of others that are planned in the state over the next 2 years by the group New Hampshire Rebellion. The objective of the group is to bring attention to the issue of money in politics and to inspire New Hampshire voters to ask all presidential candidates the question, “How will you end the system of corruption in Washington?”
There are several reasons for Lessig’s decision to target New Hampshire. New Hampshire is one of the first states to hold a primary each presidential cycle. It is important to get all presidential candidates thinking about the issue of money in politics and to get their views on the record early in the election cycle. Also, New Hampshire voters have acquired a reputation for being a well informed electorate that requires candidates to have more exposure with them, with a lot of that exposure coming from one-on-one encounters or in small group settings. Candidates wanting to win in that state have to spend a lot of time meeting with voters and discussing issues important to those voters.
It is a well-known fact that members of Congress spend 30-70% of their time raising money. Because of this, they don’t have time to govern as they should. Lessig describes a dysfunctional system on Capitol Hill where buzzers go off in members’ offices, and they race from their offices down to the floor of Congress to vote on issues when they are unaware of what they are actually voting on. In this broken system, speeches are made on the floors of the Senate and House to empty or mostly empty chambers much of the time.
According to Lessig, surveys have shown that 96% of Americans believe that the influence of money in our political system has to be changed. There is no issue that has more support. Even if those in Washington don’t believe there is much actual “quid pro quo” taking place, everyone in Washington admits that money buys access. As Lessig puts it, “Priority bends in the direction of money.”
In an interview with Bill Moyers, Lessig gave an example of how the influence of money can focus the attention of Congress away from high priority issues for the American public to refereeing disputes between major corporate interest groups. In the first quarter of 2011 (when we were struggling with a debt crisis, a huge unemployment crisis, and two wars), the number one issue Congress was working on was bank swipe fees on debit cards. This was because banks, credit card companies, and large retail merchants were spending millions of dollars to influence Congress. The banks didn’t like the way these swipe fees were handled in the Dodd-Frank law. They were making $16 billion annually on debit card swipe fees prior to the implementation of the new law and didn’t want to return any of that money back to merchants. They wanted Congress to change that part of the law for them.
Lobbyists from all sides swarmed Capitol Hill. Staffers and members of Congress spent endless hours in meetings with these lobbyists. One newly elected senator said that he was “surprised at how much of our time is spent trying to divide up the spoils between various economic interests.” He continued, “I thought we’d be focused on civil liberties, on education policy, energy policy, and so on.” Needless to say, all of this is quite troubling to the American public as well. Because of the influence of money, Lessig says that members of Congress are “living within a system that forces them to behave in a certain way to succeed.” Click here to watch a clip of Lessig’s interview with Bill Moyers.
Lessig, a constitutional scholar, notes that the framers of our constitution understood that the biggest risk to our democracy was the creation of an aristocracy. They never envisioned, in the design of our government, that “money independent of votes was going to have this much control in our system.” Lessig adds, “The incentives inside the fundraising process no longer align with the incentives of an institution that was meant to represent the people as a whole. The only way to fix that is to change the incentives to make it so that, instead of obsessively worrying about what the tiniest fraction of the 1% care about, they are worrying about what the vast majority of Americans care about.”
Lessig believes that one way to do this is to make changes in the way we fund elections. He supports the Government for the People Act (H.R. 20), a bill introduced in Congress earlier this month by Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland. The bill empowers small donors with the use of matching public funds and tax credits. This bill also gives politicians an incentive to reach out to the small donors who usually get ignored by politicians. According to Lessig, it shifts the focus of fundraising away from big donors to millions of small donors. This will “spread out the funder influence.”
To watch a video of the New Hampshire Rebellion march, click here.