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As States Take on Citizens United, Lawrence Lessig Offers Bold Plan to Get Money Out of Politics

StoryJanuary 04, 2012
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California and New York City lawmakers are introducing measures today calling for a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United, the controversial 2010 Supreme Court ruling that characterizes political spending as free speech and opened the floodgates for unlimited corporate spending on election campaigns. Similar measures have passed in Los Angeles, Oakland, Albany and Boulder. We speak with Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig, author of a new book that examines how money buys results in Congress and fuels campaigns that put the powerful in office. Lessig argues that both Democrats and Republicans suffer from the undue influence of corporate lobbying and unlimited campaign financing, and lays out a strategy to fight it, including a call for a constitutional convention that could propose an amendment for publicly funded elections. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We continue our coverage of the first contest of Election 2012 with a look at money and politics. State legislators in California are introducing a measure today that would call for a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United, the controversial Supreme Court ruling that endowed corporations with the same First Amendment rights as U.S. citizens and characterizes political spending as free speech, opening the floodgates for unlimited corporate spending on election campaigns. The New York City Council is expected to vote on a similar measure today, following passage in cities including Los Angeles, Oakland, Albany and Boulder. And on Friday, Montana’s Supreme Court restored a hundred-year-old ban on corporate spending directed at political campaigns or candidates.

Well, Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig is the author of a new book that examines how money buys results in Congress and in elections. He argues both the left and right suffer from the undue influence of corporate lobbying and unlimited campaign financing, but also lays out a strategy to fight corruption that’s resulted from this influence, including a call for a constitutional convention that could then propose an amendment to transform how elections are financed. Lawrence Lessig’s new book is called Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It.

It’s a pleasure to welcome you back to Democracy Now!, Professor Lessig. Talk about these elections and the role of money in them.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Well, I’ve got to say that the results in Iowa don’t really bring out directly the problem of money in politics, only indirectly. So, Rick Santorum’s extraordinary success really had nothing to do with money. He had barely a million dollars in the campaign. But Newt Gingrich is learning the lesson of a system where unlimited, invisible, anonymous super PAC money can be used to defeat a candidate without any real opportunity to evaluate who and where the money comes from. And I think that this might be the beginning of mainstream politicians beginning to recognize what really people on the outside have been talking about for a long time.

So I hope—to follow on what Ed Fallon said in the previous segment, I hope that the debate can now move to a debate about money in politics and the recognition of the way in which it’s corrupted our system. That is the debate that could link, as Ed Fallon was saying, the Occupy movement and the Tea Party movement. But frankly, so far, the only candidate in the Republican race who’s been talking about this, Buddy Roemer, has been not even permitted to be on stage with the other Republicans to address the issue, so I’m not yet hopeful it’s going to be the focus.

AMY GOODMAN: In August 2009, Mitt Romney drew scrutiny after publicly declaring corporations are people. In an appearance at the Iowa State Fair, Romney made the assertion in response to crowd members who urged him to back tax hikes on the wealthy in order to fund Social Security and Medicare.

MITT ROMNEY: For the coming decades going to be able to balance our budget and not spend more than we take in, we have to make sure that the promises we make in Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare are promises we can keep. And there are various ways of doing that. One is we could raise taxes on people.

HECKLER: Corporations!

MITT ROMNEY: Corporations are people, my friend. We can raise taxes on—

HECKLER: No, they’re not!

MITT ROMNEY: Of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. So, where do you think it goes?

HECKLER: In their pocket.

MITT ROMNEY: Whose pockets? Whose pockets? People’s pockets. OK. Human beings, my friend.

AMY GOODMAN: That was a comment he made actually just a few months ago, in August of 2011. Professor Lessig?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Yeah, so, this is a debate that’s, of course, animated extraordinary energy to push for reform. And that’s what’s happening in California. That’s what will happen in New York today, when legislatures vote to try to overturn Citizens United. My own view is that that is a partial solution to this problem. You know, it’s not as if on January 20th, 2010, the day before Citizens United was decided, democracy in America was humming along perfectly well and then was broken by the Supreme Court. Democracy was already broken in the United States in 2010. And it’s broken because the tiniest slice of Americans, 0.26 percent, fund—give more than $200 in a congressional campaign. 0.05 percent max out in a congressional campaign. The tiniest slice of the top 1 percent of America funds elections in America. And that reality will always, whether corporations are persons or not, corrupt the system in Washington. And the only solution to that problem is not just limiting the ability of corporations or private individuals to spend unlimited amounts in political expenditures, it’s also to begin to talk openly and honestly about the need to fund publicly public elections. And that’s the part of the debate that even the activists, even the outsiders, are not willing to come clean on, and I think they need to come clean if we’re going to have real reform.

AMY GOODMAN: There was a push for constitutional amendment in Iowa around campaign financing. What is your view of that?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Well, I think that the amendment we need has got to both push for public funding, in some way—and I’ve got my own version in a book, which basically says, let’s rebate the first $50 in taxes and allow that to be given to candidates, who only take rebates and $100 contributions. But whatever the version is, it’s got to be a version of public funding and limits on the ability of independent expenditures to be completely dominating the political process. I don’t think anybody should be banned to participate in the political process, but I do think it’s legitimate for Congress to make sure that the political process is not controlled by these unlimited super PAC expenditures, which we saw—Newt Gingrich saw in Iowa—is exactly the dynamic that increasingly will govern 2012.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised by Newt Gingrich increasingly coming out about—against this kind of money that we don’t know where it comes from? We know the super PAC, but people are not identified who are contributing to it. And you have one of the main spokespeople for the Republican Party, since he had become the target of it, saying this all has to be identified, that Romney should “man up”?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Yeah. So, you know, there’s a certain sweet justice to this, because, of course, in my view, all of the problems that we’re seeing in the way corruption governs Washington really begins with Newt Gingrich becoming speaker of the House and radically changing the way Congress functions, focused exclusively on the question of how to defeat the other party or to stay in power, and focused exclusively, as a member, on the question of raising unlimited amounts of money to be able to fund these campaigns. So it’s a little bit of ironic justice that now, as he’s running for president, the very system that he helped birth is turning around to bite him and defeat him. So, I’m glad to see him join the ranks of Jack Abramoff as reformers who want to see how to fix the system which they helped build and flourished from. But I think we need more than the Jack Abramoffs and the Newt Gingrichs out there pushing for the right answer. We need people who understand and are willing to say from the outside, we have to have a system we can trust, and this system, nobody trusts.

AMY GOODMAN: You interviewed Jack Abramoff recently at Harvard, Lawrence Lessig?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Yeah, I invited him to a series, where we’re going to try to talk to people who are not the kind of John Rawlses of our age, but still people who might have an insight. And he was quite open and quite direct about the extraordinary corruption that exists inside the system right now, that has nothing to do really with the crimes that he was convicted of. This is legal corruption, not illegal corruption. And it’s—

AMY GOODMAN: And just tell us quickly who Jack Abramoff is, for people who do not remember.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Right. So Jack Abramoff was the super lobbyist during the rise of the Gingrich era who eventually was convicted for crimes from the excesses of his lobbying, but now has come back, after serving his time in prison, and wants to radically change the system so that democracy in America [inaudible] work again.

AMY GOODMAN: Lawrence Lessig, let’s talk about New Hampshire, a place where the issue of money corrupting politics has often been raised. It’s really what McCain won on four years ago in the New Hampshire primary. Talk about the role of money in the super PACs and money in politics in New Hampshire, the next primary.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Yeah, well, you know, I’ve got to say again, I’ve been disappointed so far about the unwillingness of the New Hampshire process to focus on this issue enough. You know, again, the only candidate who said anything about this problem, who has made it a central issue of his campaign, who has taken no more than $100 from any contributor, Buddy Roemer, has been forbidden from being on any of these debates, even though, arguably, he is the most qualified candidate in that Republican field. He’s a four-term congressman, a governor from Louisiana. But he has been the one that’s been focusing on this issue. And New Hampshire should be the place where this issue takes off. But he has not yet had the chance in New Hampshire to capture the imagination of New Hampshire voters in the way that McCain did. And, you know, there’s a chance—there’s still one—two more important debates—that, if he gets more than 5 percent in the polls, he will be in those debates. But if he is in those debates, I think New Hampshire would hear that message and respond to it quite powerfully.

AMY GOODMAN: The role of President Obama in this debate?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Disappointment. Deep, deep disappointment. You know, the man ran four years ago—I was a strong supporter, a colleague of his from Chicago. He ran on this issue. He ran on the need to take up the fight to change the way Washington works. And then when he got to Washington, he forgot that fight. And so, now he’s running a campaign where he’s raising $35,000 contributions, not the $100 or $50 contributions that fueled his last campaign. So he has been a disappointment. I’d love to find a way to get him back in the center of this debate credibly. But I’m worried that his about-face and forgetting this reform issue means that he’s not going to be the reformer he said he would be.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, the fact that he’s said he’s going to raise, or his campaign has said he’s going to raise, one—more than $1 billion, doesn’t this somewhat get in the way? And how does this get reconciled with how he deals with the Occupy movement that says that money is the heart of the corruption, you know, the 1 percent—the inequity of 1 percent and the 99 percent?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Yeah, that rhetoric worked well before he had served as president for three, and now entering soon four, years. But after you’ve been serving for three or four years and run an administration that’s not done one thing to change the influence of corruption in Congress, and has not done one thing to distance yourself from the extraordinary money that Wall Street has poured into the system, and has basically caved to the influence of the money in that system, it’s hard to stand credibly before the Occupy movement and say you really care about ending the influence of the 1 percent over the policy that governs the 99 percent.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Lessig, a recent Atlantic article about your new book, Republic, Lost, asks, “Has a Harvard professor mapped out the next step for Occupy Wall Street?”

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Well, you know, I want to serve a role of trying to provide direction, but not a role as a leader. And this is an interesting movement, like many of these movements, that is leaderless, like many of these movements around the country, around the world, that are leaderless. So, I do think that there is a connection. And again, Ed Fallon mapped it out perfectly in your last section. Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movement need to recognize that the core thing they have in common is a recognition of the corruption of this government. They don’t have common ends, but they have a common enemy. And if they focused on that common enemy, they could actually build a movement that did speak to the 99 percent of Americans who also agree that this government is corrupt, and until we end that corruption, neither side will get what they want out of Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: You are calling for a constitutional convention. Explain what that would look like and how you see getting to that from this point now in this election year with the Occupy movement.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Well, the framers looked at the amending process, and they asked a question, which, you know, originally was just basically Congress got to propose amendments—what if Congress is the problem? And they added to the amendment the ability for states to call for a convention that itself gets to propose amendments, and those amendments then to have to be ratified like any other amendment. And the reality is how—despite how hard this is to imagine, the only way we’re going to get this system changed is to change it from the outside. And the only outside mechanism we have is the mechanism of a convention. So, 34 states need to be ratified—need to ratify a call for a convention. And I think the movement has got to go to those states and work them, legislature by legislature, to get them to recognize the need for a convention. Now, the interesting politics of this is, people can call for a convention for any purpose. So there’s already a strong conservative movement to push for a convention for balanced budget objectives or to limit the national debt. And I think that all of these proposals need to be considered in the context of a convention. But I think, unfortunately, the only option we have for intervening to fix this corrupted system is the only option the framers gave us, which is outsiders organizing to fix the problem in Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: Lawrence Lessig, I want to thank you for being with us, author of Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It. He is a professor at Harvard University.

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