In his lecture on campus on Monday, Harvard Law Prof. Lawrence Lessig argued that though Congress has begun to tackle campaign finance corruption, it has failed to get to the root of the problem.
At the event, sponsored by the Ford School of Public Policy and the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, Lessig — best known for his views on reducing copyright restrictions by government reform — expanded on issues plaguing Congress.
Lessig began his argument by stating that in each election cycle, the United States has two elections: the general election and the “money” election. All eligible citizens vote in the former, but in the latter only the “funders” — the 0.05 percent of the population who contribute the maximum amount to congressional campaigns — are eligible to vote.
The catch, according to Lessig, is that in order to be successful in the general election, a candidate must also do well in the money election.
Lessig argued that the electorate and government form an exclusive dependency, though the government has now also formed a reliance on funders, fostering conflicting ideals and spurring corruption within Congress.
Since those who contribute to campaigns have such disproportionate control over who can get elected, Congressional candidates spend 30 to 70 percent of their time fundraising for re-election, according to Lessig. This dynamic also allows for a Congressman’s views to be heavily influenced by financial contributors, and any reform that angers funders is highly unlikely to pass.
“(Funders are) driving public policy not in a way that aims at public interest but at their private interest,” Lessig said.
Lessig said the people who comprise the group will shift based on prominent issues coming to the forefront in Congress. He said that as a result there is a vast discrepancy between congressional policy outcomes and what would best serve the majority, concluding that the congressional agenda is driven not by the needs of the public, but by issues that will result in campaign donations.
This dynamic has also led to a fractured relationship between Congress and the public, Lessig said. In a poll Lessig conducted for his book, “Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress — and a Plan to Stop it,” he found that 75 percent of Americans believe that contributions to campaigns have a visible affect on Congress, leading to positive results for a party. He said that core belief erodes trust in Congress, which results in less participation in the system.
Lessig used the rise in childhood obesity as an example of Congress’s conflicting dependency. Since 1980, the number of obese children in the United States has tripled, resulting in annual direct care costs of $147 billion.
Lessig noted how the prevalence of high fructose corn syrup has exacerbated the obesity epidemic. Due to tariffs that protect the domestic sugar industry, corn, which serves as a sugar substitute, is heavily subsided by the government and thus much cheaper, leading to the rise in high fructose corn syrup use.
According to Lessig, the reason these economic and nutritional situations persist despite the harm they have on the public is campaign finance. Food processing company Archer Daniels Midland Company has spent millions of dollars in campaign donations to protect the subsidy on corn and the high price of sugar, Lessig explained.
Though Lessig said he believes this conflicting dependency is corrupt, he acknowledged that the behavior is in no way illegal and thus will be difficult to reform. Lessig proposed that the United States create a voucher system, and suggested that citizens rebate Federal Treasury contributions in the form of a “democracy voucher.” If a candidate accepts that voucher, they will also be able to accept additional contributions of $100.
Law student Andrew Goddeeris said he was impressed by Lessig’s lecture and felt it was “useful to have a deepened understanding of the issue.”
Goddeeris added that he thought Lessig emphasized the urgency of the issue, but was surprised the event was held in an auditorium with so little capacity.
“It seems like a more important event for our democracy,” he said.