Between the Lines Q&A

A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release March 3, 2010

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'Fix Congress First!' Organizes
to Change 'Pay to Play' Status Quo
in Washington, D.C.

 RealAudio  MP3

Interview with Lawrence Lessig,
Harvard University law professor,
director of the Edward J. Sifra Foundation Center for Ethics,
and co-founder of the group Change Congress,
conducted by Scott Harris


According to the Center for Responsive Politics, companies that hired congressional lobbyists in 2009 spent more than $3.47 billion to influence legislators as they debated the future of health care reform, financial regulations and energy policy. That constituted more than a 5 percent increase over the previous record expenditure of $3.3 billion spent on federal lobbying in 2008. The center calculated that $1.3 million were spent on lobbying every hour that Congress was in session during 2009.

This flood of corporate spending to influence Congress came as the U.S. was suffering through the worst economic decline since the Great Depression. Public opinion polls indicate most Americans aren't happy with the status quo in Washington, with more than 60 percent saying that federal legislators don't deserve to be re-elected. Several other polls find that the public's approval for Congress and political parties are now at historic lows.

Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, is co-founder of the non-profit group Change Congress, whose mission is to restore public trust in government and protect the independence of Congress by fighting the influence of money in politics. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with professor Lessig about how his group proposes to change the status quo in Washington where big money has veto power over congressional action on behalf of the public good.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: We'll it's a kind of corruption that's different than the kind of corruption that was pretty common in the 18th and 19th century, the kind of bribery or quid pro quo corruption, or corruption of Rod Blagovich or Randy "Duke" Cunningham. This is more a corruption of influence: And it comes because Congress is enormously competitive, with each party trying to raise as much money as they possibly can to keep control of Congress. And that means that they spend between 30 and 70 percent of their time out there raising money, if not for themselves, then for somebody else in their party. And if anybody recognizes that if you're spending that much time focused on what big funders want, you can't help but be corrupted from the underlying job that you're supposed to be doing, which is to be dependent not upon your funders, but upon the people. And so this behavior, this dance that they dance, leads most people to believe they're in fact not so much concerned about what their constituents want, and mainly concerned about what makes their funders happy.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Now with the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission -- which really gave carte blanche to big corporations and other less wealthy nonprofit groups to spend as much as they want to influence campaigns -- could it be that this kind of swapping of the political system with no holds barred, an infusion of money the likes of which this country has never seen, could that turn around public apathy and actually involve citizens in trying to change what is viewed evermore as an untenable, antidemocratic system?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: It could, and I think it will, if we give the people a clear alternative that they can work for. You know, I think one of the most depressing facts about the democratic leadership in Congress and the president, is that rather than pursuing a bold idea about how to change the system and make it into one that people can believe in again, they're tinkering at the margins--you know, this the classic arranging the desk chairs on the Titanic.

So, Democrats and the president want more transparency; they want to make it easier for people. The president proposed track down who got earmarks. And all, of course, are good, nobody would argue against transparency, but the idea that making it easier for people to use the Internet to find out how money affected politics is going to make them believe in politics more is extraordinarily naive.

What has to happen is a fundamental change in the economy of influence that governs how members get elected. And what that means is citizen-funded elections. And if we had that -- which there are now 135 co-sponsors in the House for a bill that would do exactly that -- then at least people could begin to believe that the reason Congress did what it did, whatever stupid thing they did they did because they were too liberal or too conservative, but not because of the money. And that's the first step once again to restoring faith in this democracy.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Professor Lessig, you point out that this is not just some abstract argument or fight about the ideals of democracy, that there are real life consequences for us here as a nation and a world. You point out that with this economic collapse, caused in large part by deregulation, propelled by the money in Congress that pushed that deregulation, and the other major environmental issue of climate change, and the forces arrayed against changing the current energy system, which will surely get us all into hot water, with real dire consequences for life on the planet, that this really is again not some kind of parlor game, that there's really life and death issues here.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: That's right, and I frankly blame all of us for not being more aware of how this systemic problem needs to be solved. You know we've got to connect the dots: some of us care about health care, some of us care about global warming, some of us care about, you know, a financial system that doesn't send the economy over the cliff . Whatever it is you care about, you need to begin to recognize we're not going to get any of this reform until we fix this first problem first. And, you know, people have got to put aside their own personal pet issue, and begin to devote the energy we need to focus on this first problem first. And if we do that, as obviously a democracy has the opportunity to make this change. It's going to require a kind of courage and devotion that we've not seen in this democracy for many years.

Visit the Change Congress website at

Related links:

Scott Harris is an executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 45 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending Feb.26, 2010. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melanie Muller and Anna Manzo.

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