August 14, 2007 · Lessig
In an interview after YearlyKos, DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas Zuniga was keen to avoid making himself less relevant (“I can’t imagine any way to make myself less relevant today than to come out” and announce his choice for the presidency he told the Times). But there are times when we all have a duty to make ourselves a bit less relevant (I know, assuming a fact not in evidence). This is one for me, prompted by Senator Clinton’s vigorous defense of lobbyists, now supported by the Wall Street Journal.
It should be no surprise that I’ve been a Clinton skeptic for sometime now. As I said at a keynote at PDF , those of us in the free culture movement have lots to be skeptical about. Some of the worst changes in copyright law came under the watch of her husband (Sonny Bono Act, DMCA, NET Act). She’s made no statements that I’m aware of to suggest she has any different view from her husband’s. She was also the only major Democratic candidate not to endorse the idea of free presidential debates. Of all the Dems, I would have bet she was closest to the copyright extremists. So far, she’s done nothing to suggest to the contrary.
But that skepticism could have been erased. As important as I believe those issues are, they are obvious not the most important. What is, in my view, most important is a candidate with a clear understanding of the corruption that is Washington. (Again, not corruption in the bribe sense. But corruption in the economy of influence sense I’ve described before.)
After her comments on the lobbyists, it is clear enough that Senator Clinton has no such clear view. Indeed, quite to the contrary: were she elected, we’d get more of the “let me do enough to suggest I think this matters but not so much as to make a change” we’ve seen for 30 years. And if this election is to matter, this is precisely the sort of view that we need to defeat.
“The idea,” Senator Clinton said, “that a contribution is somehow going to influence you …” Right. That’s precisely the idea. Not always. Not fundamentally. But obviously (isn’t it? Or is the relationship between contributions and votes so brilliantly mapped on MAPLight just an amazing coincidence?) on the margins, when interests are strong and opposition oblivious, “contributions … influence” judgments that otherwise would have been different. That, at least sometimes, is the problem.
The problem is not, as Clinton seemed to suggest, that anyone believes that lobbyists are evil. Of course they are not evil. Lobbyists are often among the best educated, hardest working, most sophisticated people in Washington. They know their stuff. They are fantastic at conveying the message. They are typically decent, polite and honorable people. They are not in any sense corrupt, any more than lawyers, or press secretaries, or union stewards are corrupt. They have a job; it is to persuade. The people who succeed in that job succeed because they are good at what they do.
But just because a system is populated with good people does mean the system itself is not corrupt. And the problem with this system is the way it obviously queers good judgment when so much effort by politicians must be devoted to raising money in order to keep your job.
Put differently, if there were a way to fund campaigns that wouldn’t create the stain of corruption, we would still need (and want) lobbyists. Their job would be simply to make policymakers aware of the interests they represent. But just because your job is to educate politicians, it doesn’t mean you have to be able to give politicians money.
This is the (extraordinarily obvious) point the Wall Street Journal missed when it chimed in yesterday in support of the Senator. As the Journal wrote:
Her answer was met with jeers, but what Mrs. Clinton was daring to tell her left-wing audience is that lobbyists are an essential means by which average Americans transmit their political concerns to Washington, and in turn hold their elected Representatives accountable. Not everyone in America can afford to trek to D.C., or has the clout to demand an audience with a Senator. Lobbyists represent the collective voice of groups with shared ideals, whether they be gun owners, union workers, corporate employees or the pro-choice movement.
Just the sort of reasoning that makes that page so famous: Look, lawyers represent their clients before a judge. Does it follow from that that judges must be free to take money from lawyers? Even just to redecorate their office?
I don’t doubt that at one level, Senator Clinton believes — like every politician who takes money in a campaign, or every law professor who takes money to testify for some policy or another — that her judgments are not being influenced by that money. But I also can’t believe that she doesn’t also understand that at some level, this simply can’t be true. A good politician develops a 6th sense about how her actions will play. Some of these reactions we want her to be sensitive to — that’s why this is a democracy. But it impossible to believe that politicians spending 40% to 70% of their time raising funds to get elected don’t begin to factor into their decisions a sense about how their decisions will burden their opportunities to raise money. Not that it always trumps. But like water in a basement, it obviously eventually corrodes.