Harvard Law Prof. on a ‘Broken’ System of Campaign Finance

October 25, 2010
Not all media coverage of the midterm elections has dwelled on predictions of a power change in Washington - some outlets have focused attention on money flowing anonymously into this year's election cycle. For example, The New York Times reported last week on the enormous amounts of money that have been pumped into the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has allowed it "to become one of the most well-financed critics of the Obama administration and an influential player in this fall's Congressional elections."

Much of campaign financing coverage notes the impact the Supreme Court's 2010 opinion in Citizens United v. FEC, which overturned decades of precedent regarding the regulation of corporate campaign financing. In an interview with The Nation's Chris Hayes, Harvard law school professor Lawrence Lessig acknowledges the troubles of the Citizens United outcome, but says our democracy was already corrupted by a campaign financing system that has driven droves of politicians to be beholden to large funders.

Lessig, director of Harvard's Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics, told Hayes, "Our democracy was already broken before Citizens United." Before that decision was issued earlier this year, we "already had a system that drove members to be dependent upon funders rather than upon citizens, and that dependency is what is corrupting of the original conception of what a democracy would be - as Federalist 52 put it, our government was to be an entity where our Congress would be dependent on our people alone."

Lessig continued:

Well, it is absurd to think that our Congress is dependent upon our people alone today, and that's because of our current political financing system. So a lot of people want to spend a lot of energy trying to overturn Citizens United - and I'm the first to say that Citizens United is going to create all sorts of bad influences - but overturning Citizens United is not going to solve the problem.

The first course of action, Lessig maintains, is to push for reform "that radically changes the economy of influence that members live under when they raise money to run for Congress." As an example, he mentioned the Fair Elections Now Act, which he said would make it possible for candidates to run campaigns "where they took no more than $100 dollars from any citizen." Those contributions would be matched by the government, and would help produce a much different crop of candidates, he said.

If such change were in place before the next election cycle, Lessig said it would "produce a significant number of congress people" not beholden to the kinds of interests fueling today's election cycle. And those lawmakers, Lessig said, "could then begin to think about what other reforms might be necessary to make sure we have the kind of election cycle that our framers intended us to have."

Audio of the Lessig interview is available here.