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Fixing Congress

February 7, 2010

Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig makes the case that Congress will not achieve meaningful reform — whether conservative or liberal — until we rid it of moneyed interests:

No one, Republican or Democratic, who doesn’t currently depend upon this system should accept it. No president, Republican or Democratic, who doesn’t change this system could possibly hope for any substantive reform. For small-government Republicans, the existing system will always block progress. There will be no end to extensive and complicated taxation and regulation until this system changes (for the struggle over endless and complicated taxation and regulation is just a revenue opportunity for the Fundraising Congress). For reform-focused Democrats, the existing system will always block progress. There will be no change in fundamental aspects of the existing economy, however inefficient, from healthcare to energy to food production, until this political economy is changed (for the reward from the status quo to stop reform is always irresistible to the Fundraising Congress). In a single line: there will be no change until we change Congress.

If Lessig is correct, we “reform-focused” Democrats may have something in common with “small-government” Republicans after all: a desire to limit the influence of special interests. I am beginning to think that the current right-left political fault line might eventually give way to a populist earthquake.

I do wonder, however, how serious the Republican base is about fixing Congress. Right-wing denunciations of the bank and auto bailouts are familiar enough — yet few on the right have acknowledged that no-strings-attached bailouts are the logical outcome of allowing corporations to finance elections (since Congress is necessarily beholden to its largest donors).

Remember the base’s disapproval of McCain? During the Republican primaries, Dennis Prager went so far as to identify campaign finance reform as the decisive factor in his inability to vote for the senator:

I could support politicians with whom I differ on taxation (I support a consumption tax), on education (I support vouchers and think the Department of Education should be disbanded), on a flag-burning amendment (I’m against), on an amendment defining marriage as a man-woman institution (I’m for), and on many more divisive issues.

But there are a few positions that are either so immoral or so destructive or so foolish that a politician who holds them cannot be considered a viable candidate. Campaign finance reform, such as the McCain-Feingold bill, falls into the latter two categories.

Why, exactly, does Prager have such strong feelings about campaign finance reform? Because it undermines “freedom” of course. Prager continues:

Who is the government to tell an American whom he can give his money to? So long as the giving is completely transparent — i.e., the public knows exactly who has given any candidate money and exactly how much — people should be allowed to spend as much on another person as on themselves.

Lessig may be correct that corporate influence undermines even the Republican agenda. It seems clear, however, that the GOP base (of which Prager’s remarks are typical) doesn’t get this. Moreover, so long as FreedomWorks funds and FoxNews televises the Tea Party protests, even the GOP’s fringe will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.

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