Shiny, happy people going to Congress

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

I was rather surprised to read about Lawrence Lessig’s consideration about running for Congress, based on his “Change Congress” platform. I don’t live in his district, so couldn’t vote for him. I’ll probably be roundly condemned for saying that I wouldn’t vote for him, even if I could.

I don’t doubt Lessig’s ethics and concerns, or his charisma, but I don’t have a lot of faith that he’s a person capable of bringing about the change he seems to seek. I look back on his work regarding copyright law, especially Creative Commons, and I don’t feel anything long term or widespread has been created from this effort. The Creative Commons movement has had some serious challenges the last few years, challenges that have been basically disregarded by Lessig and others among the CC leadership. They have consistently demonstrated a “see no criticism, hear no criticism” policy when it comes to questions and concerns raised about the Creative Commons. I can’t see how this unwillingness to confront criticism, or even acknowledge it, would make Lessig an effective Congressman.

As for Lessig’s newest passion, I watched the video associated with the Change Congress movement, and at first glance, one can’t see anything to criticize. After all, who doesn’t want to lessen the impact of contributions from the passing of legislation? To limit the power of those evil PACs? To bring about campaign reform? However, this initial view of the issue is rather naive, as well as incomplete. For instance, let’s look more closely at the contributions by Political Action Committees, or PACs, and their evil influence on American politics.

There are tobacco company PACs and PACs associated with the drug companies, oil, credit card companies, and other big businesses. No one denies how these PACs have influenced legislation that has harmed people like you and me. However, one of the most significant PACs is Emily’s List, which supports Democratic women candidates who are pro-choice. Another of the top 100 contributing PACs is the American Federation of Teachers, just one of the many union-based PACs. Right next to Walt Disney, as a major contributing PAC is the National Committee for an Effective Congress, a progressive PAC.

If you think about it, other than not officially being registered as a PAC, the Facebook group and web sites attempting to draft Lessig for Congress has all the characteristics of a PAC. One, moreover, financed primarily by people outside of Lessig’s district, a major criticism of PACs. Lessig, himself, wrote a post yesterday about accepting contributions from ActBlue, which can be considered, or perceived, as a PAC. Evidently PACs are only evil when they’re not?

Another issue Lessig brings up is the concept of “earmarks”. According to the Office of Management and Budget, earmarks are “are funds provided by the Congress for projects or programs where the congressional direction (in bill or report language) circumvents the merit-based or competitive allocation process, or specifies the location or recipient, or otherwise curtails the ability of the Executive Branch to properly manage funds.”

We all know about the bridge to nowhere in Alaska, whereby the powerful Senator Ted Stevens attempted to grab 230 million in congressional appropriations for building a bridge to an island that has a total population of 50 people. Earmarks have long been a bone of contention in Congress, and it would seem to be in the best interest of the people to eliminate this “scam” on the American people. Yet many of the people supporting Lessig might be surprised to learn that the fight against earmarks has generally been commanded by Republicans, while the concept of earmarks has generally been supported by Democrats.

One justification for earmarks is based on the belief that the individual congressional members best know what projects need support in their districts, as compared to what the Federal government determines is the best use of federal money. However, the reality is that earmarks have been used, too frequently, to reward business and other PAC contributors who donate money to campaigns. In addition, earmarks are all too frequently given out based on congressional tenure, rather than strength of argument or worth of project.

In other words, the concept of earmarks is actually good, it’s the execution that suffers. Regardless of the good or bad, or President’s Bush’s heavy warnings aside, the 2008 FY budget allocates $16 billion for earmarks out of a total budget of about $3 trillion. Or approximately one-half of one percent of the total budget. That’s 0.00533 of the total budget, for those preferring a more precise, digital representation.

The last platform issue related to Lessig’s Change Congress initiative has to do with public financing of candidates running for office, which is also indirectly related to the other two issues. The point of public financing is that candidates would then no longer be beholden to Big Money Interests.

Let’s look more closely at public financing of candidates, a concept equivalent to being “agin sin” in today’s American political environment.

The benefit of public financing is obvious: remove the influence Big Money brings to elections. The problem with public financing, however, is that it doesn’t limit the amount of money that can be spent by outside groups. So, the current crop of candidates may be limited in how much they can spend, but “Moms for Obama” could spend up to the limits of law, joining with “Truck drivers for Obama” and “Apple Growers for Obama”. This is in addition to money spent by each party promoting members of the party, as well as money spent through a dozen or so loopholes.

There are probably a half dozen organizations focusing on political campaign reform, some more successful than others. There’s Clean Money Clean Elections, efforts by Public Citizen, and Open Secrets Tracking the Payback. All of these organizations are populated by people who have been committed to this action for years, even decades. People knowledgeable about the issues and problems, as well as informed about the loop holes (and how to plug).

Which then leads us back to the whole Change Congress platform. Here we’re talking about an organization populated by neophytes who got a hankering to “change Congress”, without once considering that some of most important changes must occur at the local and state level, and in the executive branch, as well as Congress. Populated by people who seem to think that all one needs is a weblog, the right social network (and associated tools), and a leader who is wired.

In a way, this new Change Congress movement is precisely why I would not vote for Lessig. Rather than join with others who have been working these issues for the last several years, start up a new effort with lots of cool slogans and neat videos, and catchy phrases–no real plans, no organization, no experience. After all, all we need to make change is a catchy video and a great speech, right?

Rather than working for change, seems to me this effort is working counter to change. Take the fact that if Lessig ran, he’d be running against Jackie Speier, a person he, himself, praises for all of her hard work in public service. What else was it that Lessig spoke out in his video? The fact that Speier took contributions from the insurance industry, while being part of the insurance industry review board.

What would be interesting to see is how these contributions break down, because some of the contributions I’ve been able to discover are from PACs who contribute to all politicians, Republic and Democrat, equally. The embattled Ameren in Missouri did the same thing before it stopped contributing to any candidate. And it’s not as if Speier is the only candidate to take industry campaign money, or work with industry lobbyists. Perhaps it’s that she’s the only one that doesn’t have a catchy Hollywood produced YouTube video?

Regardless, accepting the contributions was Wrong, with a capital ‘W’. It is “old school politician”, according to Lessig. What on earth has Speier done that could possibly make up for such a heinous act? I mean, what do we know about Speier other than this campaign contribution?

Well, we know that Jackie Speier was shot five times when she accompanied her boss, Congressman Ryan to Jonestown. That she helped generate the funding for Caltrain, the light rail system I used to ride, and love, when I lived in California. That she’s been an ardent privacy and consumer rights advocate. That she has sponsored bills to introduce campaign reform in California. Co-authored the book, This life is Not the Life I Ordered. That she worked to ensure that all health plans in the state include maternity benefits. Has served as a state representative until reaching term limits. That she has the unreserved support of other state and federal level Democrats, and is beloved of progressives.

Yes, nothing that really makes up for accepting those insurance industry campaign contributions. Bad womans.

What do we know about Lessig other than he’s anti-DRM, for Creative Commons, and wants campaign reform? He says of himself that he shares Speier’s views on Iraq and health care, is a “liberal Democrat” who is “pro-market, free trade”, which should make Apple and Google happy.

I have no doubts that Lawrence Lessig’s intentions are good, and perhaps he would make a good Congressman. I do agree that we need to counter the influence money has on Congress, especially when it comes to consumer laws and the environment. Hard to say anything more about Lessig, as I’ve not heard him speak on most of the issues most important to me. Everything I’ve read about him, though, says he’s a good man who is passionate about his causes.

If Lessig joins the political arena, though, he’d better be forewarned: if what I wrote in this post seems critical, perhaps even harsh, it’s a love poem compared to what others will write. And unlike what happened with the Creative Commons, he can’t pretend the critics don’t exist and if we’re ignored, we’ll go away. He’d better have a thicker skin than I’ve ever seen on him. Thicker skin and open ears and eyes.

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