Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig visited Dartmouth yesterday to deliver a public lecture with the same title as this post. His topic was the nearly intractable issue of the role of money and lobbying on policy. He has written extensively about the issue and has a nascent movement to show for it. See "Fix Congress First," where he advocates for, among other things, the Fair Elections Now Act.
I had the chance to talk with him over lunch. In the course of that discussion, there seemed to be four approaches, not mutually exclusive, that emerge in trying to reduce the corrupting influence of money on politics:
Today's marathon Senate Permanent Investigations Subcommittee hearing into Goldman Sachs' role in the financial crisis found Goldman executives and senators talking past each other or driving each other to frustration with non-responses and no responses to loaded questions. Subcommittee Chair Carl Levin (D-IL) quickly expressed frustration that Goldman witnesses wouldn't answer "yes" to his questions on whether Goldman had any obligation to disclose its short positions to clients it was unloading "crap" long positions upon as described in a Goldman email. Similarly, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) kept asking if Goldman had a duty to act in the best interests of its clients, and she didn't get an answer she was satisfied with either.
I wonder if the Founding Fathers envisioned that this sentence (highlighted in bold, courtesy of Harold Meyerson's column in today's Washington Post) would become so commonplace:
The civil rights leaders who have called this march don't doubt that if Obama could enact immigration reform by executive order, he would. In his meeting with them last Thursday, the president affirmed his commitment to the cause. Whether it will become his legislative priority is another question: Congress is waiting to see what Obama does, even as Obama says he needs to see some GOP willingness to enact reform (and this is certainly a cause that some leading Republicans, most notably John McCain, have supported in the past).
Why should Congress wait to see what Obama does? Congress should do. Obama should sign, or not. When you march on Washington, you should be facing east from the Washington Monument, not north.
I am all for eliminating earmarks to for-profit companies and for extending it to non-profits as well. All discretionary money should be awarded on an open, competitive basis, with oversight of the executive branch agencies by appropriate Congressional committees. Earmarks have no place in federal spending, as a matter of principle. From The Washington Post:
"It ensures that for-profit companies no longer reap the rewards of congressional earmarks and limits the influence of lobbyists on members of Congress," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said, linking the move to earlier decisions to ban gifts from lobbyists and forbid privately financed travel.
Democrats made the move to bar earmarks for for-profit entities despite fierce resistance from many rank-and-file lawmakers who rely on them to spread federal money around their districts and consider them crucial to their political fortunes.
Republicans responded immediately by proposing a moratorium on all earmarks, even those for nonprofits such as universities. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said voters would reward Republicans in the November midterm elections for taking on special interests.
It's not the $20 billion hit to the budget -- federal spending may not even go down if special interest projects are replaced by meritorious projects. It is the lack of transparency and the potential for corruption that is the problem. I don't think this ban alone will be enough to stop the corruption -- Congress must do its job to oversee the federal agencies running the competitive processes.
I think this op-ed, "Reconciliation on health care would be an assault on the democratic process" by Orrin Hatch has appeared 30 days ahead of schedule. Reconciliation is not the assault on democracy -- the Senate is the assault on democracy. Senator Hatch may like the way the Senate requires supermajorities and other obstacles to the simplest version of majority rule that most of us think of when we hear the word "democracy," but he shouldn't go redefining words on his own. That's not what language is for.
And the fun doesn't stop there. Here are three more offenses against language that jump off the page:
1) Hatch refers to the reconciliation process as "arcane." I don't think so. The filibuster that reconciliation would circumvent is arcane.
2) Hatch again takes some liberties with the definition of democracy:
This use of reconciliation to jam through this legislation, against the will of the American people, would be unprecedented in scope.
Readers of the blog know I am no particularly fan of the health care bills, but if a majority of the elected representatives in both houses and the elected occupant of the White House all support the bill, then I think that "against the will of the American people" is a pretty tough sell.