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.

  • http://www.maplight.org Dan Newman

    Campaign Contributions and Votes about Net Neutrality

    An example illustrating the pattern of campaign contributions for U.S. Congress comes from a communications bill, H.R. 5252 in 2006. This bill was opposed by online services like Google, and by the broad Internet community, because it did not insure “Net Neutrality”–the principle that traffic from all websites will be treated equally by Internet service providers. Telephone utilities like AT&T supported this bill–they want to be able to charge websites for speedy delivery of content.

    These graphs show the pattern of political giving for this bill. Telephone Utilities, for example, gave an average of $11,063 each to House members who voted Yes on this bill, but just $3,874–about a third as much–to members who voted No.

    MAPLight.org also shows contributions and votes for each legislator.

    MAPLight.org provides a timeline of contributions and votes for every bill in Congress. It shows that AT&T made contributions to fourteen House members on June 9– the same day each of these legislators voted Yes on H.R. 5252:

    AT&T INC $5,000 6/9/2006 Calvert
    AT&T INC $5,000 6/9/2006 Carter
    AT&T INC $1,000 6/9/2006 Flake
    AT&T INC $3,000 6/9/2006 Fossella
    AT&T INC $2,000 6/9/2006 Issa
    AT&T INC $1,000 6/9/2006 Johnson
    AT&T INC $2,500 6/9/2006 Knollenberg
    AT&T INC $1,000 6/9/2006 LaHood
    AT&T INC $500 6/9/2006 Lucas
    AT&T INC $1,500 6/9/2006 Miller
    AT&T INC $1,000 6/9/2006 Neal
    AT&T INC $3,000 6/9/2006 Nunes
    AT&T INC $2,500 6/9/2006 Radanovich
    AT&T INC $5,000 6/9/2006 Smith

    (List of all June 2006 Telephone Utility contributions.)

    - Dan Newman, Executive Director, MAPLight.org

  • http://ejnorman.blogspot.com Eric Norman

    How to reform the influence of money in political campaigns? Easy; just eliminate the demand. If advertising tobacco products can be banned, then don’t allow political commercials either.

    Really, how much do you ever learn from a political commercial? (1) You learn what mudpies the candidate wants to sling this week. (2) You learn what kind of a dog they have.

    So where will voters get accurate information? The same place they always got it, from the journalists — good journalists. Well, methinks things are a little different nowadays. Currently, it seems that the most accurate information about political candidates comes from the comedians.

  • Nathan Avinbl

    (1) As it stands, federal lobbyists have contributed $500k to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. So we’re talking about just under 1% of her funds coming from lobbyists. Its hard to argue that she would be starved of money if they weren’t allowed to contribute.

    (2) Even contributions bundled by lobbyists supporting her campaign total only $1.5M, or 3$ of her campaign haul.

    (3) Lobbyists are easy targets, but probably a less corrosive influence than the mega fund raisers like Bush’s ‘Pioneers’ or Hillary’s ‘Hillraisers’. Dick Cheney’s energy task force wasn’t comprised of lobbyists, but mostly ‘Pioneers’ like Ken Lay and other energy execs. Furthermore, unlike lobbyists, they don’t have to register as ‘Pioneers’ and their motives are not subject to public disclosure or scrutiny. Moreover, these are the people who get invited over to the White House for sleep overs and what have you. While Edwards and Obama may have been critical of Hillary on this issue, their campaigns are fueled my the same big money network.

    I would favor capping campaign contributions at a much lower level than the $2300 that it is right now. Every American is represented by four officials at the federal level (a President, two Senators and a Representative). My hope would be to cap campaign contributions at a level that would be reasonable to expect of the average American. This would, hopefully, diminish the influence of ‘Pioneers’ and other campaign cash bundlers.

    Some related links:
    - http://thehill.com/leading-the-news/obamas-k-street-project-2007-03-28.html
    - http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2007/08/07/who-is-the-purest-of-th_n_59548.html

  • Daniel Freiman

    A few scattered thoughts:
    Is there any evidence that any of these members would have voted against this bill under any conditions? I remember learning in class that studies show that donations buy access and priority, but not actual votes. (Although access to make your argument and priority in the agenda are important and seem to fall under Lessig’s definition of influence.) A common argument would be that ATT is donating in order to keep like-minded legislators in office, not to sway votes, but the timing of the donations does call this theory into question, at least from ATT’s side. Lastly, correlation != causation.

  • http://ronaldraygun.livejournal.com Sam Clifford

    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.

    To claim that “average Americans” are represented by lobbyists is very misleading. When compared with business groups there are only a handful of genuine public interest lobbyists in the US. There’s far too much money in politics; corporate interests have the money to hire lobbyists who have the money to donate to political parties who have the money to run giant ad campaigns on television stations which can effectively block minor parties and independents from having their voices heard by declining to run any ads that run counter to the two party orthodoxy.

    The big problem is that you’re going to have a very hard time find enough honest and passionate people in Congress to overturn the role of lobbyists and money in politics. To get a simple majority is hard enough, but I can’t imagine any President liking the sound of the proposal (unless they’ve already been elected to their second term) and the 2/3 majority required to overrule a veto is damn near unattainable.

  • http://reagle.org/joseph/blog/culture/emergent-corruption Joseph M. Reagle Jr.

    So, I think — and hope — Lessig can help. Yet I’m surprised to see in his musings that he’s worrying about questions of intention: is Hillary Clinton consciously taking money for votes, or perhaps being subconsciously influenced? (I would suspect there is some social and political psychology research on opinion formation and social influence that might be relevant.) But sadly, while there is plenty of conscious and unconscious influence peddling going on, the problem is actually much harder.

    Consider a scenario in which every politician is scrupulously honest and true to her beliefs — a best case relative to our present. Also, support, particularly money, can bestow much power upon any politician to influence the public — a case much like our own today. In such a scenario resource rich minorities can exert disproportionate influence counter to the interests of the majority of the present, majority of the future (e.g., the long-term), and reason itself. While this might be “corrupt” it requires no conscious or even subconscious persuasion from money. Rather, it is an emergent result of the social, psychological, and system dynamics of influence: support selecting, and perhaps influencing, the politician; the politician through media purchases influencing the public. And it just so happens that this is sometimes counter to our own public interests, and not easily fixed.

  • poptones

    People are lazy and do not do research. They sit like lumps and soak in whatever light emanates from the box in front of them that’s tuned, 6 hours a day, to FOX news or Howard Stern. Half of them couldn’t even identify Rhode Island on a map (much less Iran or Israel or even France) and 90% of them will complain about having “no time” to make up for any of this even as they sit and bask in that mind numbing light.

    So, surprise, this all makes it very easy to buy influence – because there’s only a few major channels of information flow, they are easy to control. And because everyone is “too busy” working 10 hours a day in the 7-11 and watching Sean Hannity tell them who to blame for all the shit they don’t have, very few actively participate in trying t change things.

    And… taa-daa! Just as we were warned more than a Century ago, the people now have the very government they deserve.

  • ed buscemi

    No such think as sleazy money in politics and corrupt lobbyists in the glorious soviet union of the erstwhile 1930s when building socialism was in full flower

  • http://www.chineseshoponline.com cryde

    China, August 16, 2007 ,Globo Sources reported that iPod accessories, iphone accessories and mp3 player and mp4 player are the top-selling wholesale products purchased direct online from China in small lots by small and medium buyers at http://www.ChineseShopOnline.com .

    iPod accessories are the most popular products offered at wholesale China prices on ChineseShopOnline . Accessories for the popular MP3 player hold four of the top 10 sales slots. The five top-selling items are:
    - MP3/iPod FM transmitter
    - MP3/MP4 Player
    - iPod car charger
    - iPod travel charger
    - Dual Card Cell phone

    These products lead list ChineseShopOnline of merchandise for sale online in categories that range from audio, car and video game accessories to Audio Accessories
    and digita photo frame products.

  • Jardinero1

    I disagree with Sam Clifford’s assertion about “average Americans” and his statement that “When compared with business groups there are only a handful of genuine public interest lobbyists in the US.”

    Seven out of ten americans own or work for a business. When a business group lobbies for its own interests it is lobbying for the interests of its emloyees as well. This is especially true today where employees participate in ESOPs, and profit sharing plans. Employee bonuses, pay plans and retirement plan contributions are often linked to the profitability of the company. Workers lives are inextricably linked to the companies they work for. When ATT lobbies Congress, it represents 302,000 employees and millions of direct shareholders or indirect shareholders through mutual funds, pensions and annuities. Are ATT employees not average americans? How aboout their shareholders. Who are the average americans and who can say but they who rightly represents their interests?

  • poptones

    How many people are employed by the insurance industry? Or the medical industry? The protections afforded those industries are often toxic to our entire society – that includes their own employees. The people at the top of the income ladder are largely immune to these problems because they have the green to shield themselves – the rest of us can end up either going so far into debt our heirs inherit nothing, or (even more perversely) propped up on some sort of privatized entitlement because, while we have virtually no money to pay, the state run facility is required to treat us. And so another american gets his or her credit rating raized so those at the top can “preserve the value of medical care.”

    How about the energy industry? Lobby for permission to dump more crap into the environment – or the pork industry? I’m sure the people of the latest targeted community are going to be so appreciative of all the new money brought in by that new pig farm they arent going to mind at all the perpeptual ofactory assault from being downwind of a Million gallon “lagoon” of pig shit. The lobbyists responsible for increasing the limits on solid particulate emissions from these places or, better still, getting massive volumes of pig shit removed from the list of things considered “toxic waste” – those folks are just completely working for those “average” pork consumers right? Because they’re hte ones who have to live near these places and will struggle with the lowered property values and indoor alerts. You can bet the people profiting most from those laws never have to deal with the stink of pigshit… unless they happen to drive by a farm on their way to the airport.

  • Jardinero1

    I work in the insurance industry and my wife in the medical industry. I live in Houston and many of my clients work in the energy industry. I disagree with your entire anger ridden assesment. Together those industries and their affiliates employ better than a tenth of all Americans. We only produce what people want to consume. Don’t buy it if you don’t like it.

  • poptones

    What are you talking about? The insurance industry is a “service” industry – it produces NOTHING AT ALL except wealth for shareholders. The health care industry at least has an ideal of helping people – even if most of that industry now is so closely tied to the parastic insurance industry the lines have become utterly invisible.

    The fact that a tenth of americans are employed in such utterly worthless industries is just another sign of how nearly worthless our entire culture has become.

  • Abigail Brown

    I wish the whole dialogue about political fundraising were turned on its head. There are two ways to reduce corporate influence in politics–restrict their money flow or drown it. Public financing of elections restricts it. Instead, I wish that the practice of individual political donations were more widespread and incorporated into our concept of responsible citizenship. Making a donation–of any size–is a way of communicating with a politician. It is one of the few avenues available to the “common” citizen between votes. I try to make a practice of donating $10-50 anytime a politician or candidate says or does something I particularly admire and donate to his/her rival if they do something particularly abhorent.

  • edward

    What’s Next after Web 2.0?

    I do not like those buzz words like Web 2.0, Business 2.0 etc., however in order to communication, you have to conform to their protocols, otherwise they might think you are speaking in a foreign language. So far Web 2.0/Internet 1.0 lead by Youtube, FaceBook, same Amazon, New Yahoo! and New Google is successful, though at not successful as Web 1.0/Internet 0.0 led by Old Yahoo!, Ebay, Amazon and Old Google. Why? Not a big surprise anymore when from Web 1.0/Internet 0.0 to Web 2.0/Internet 1.0 as opposed from nothing to Web 1.0/Internet 0.0.

    I believe the next after Web 2.0/Internet 1.0 is Web 3.0/Internet 2.0, however we’d better to call it Internet 2.0, since at that time, Web is not that important any more. Why?

    Web 1.0/Internet 0.0 – Informed, you as a reader

    Web 2.0/Internet 1.0 – Inform, you as a writer

    Internet 2.0 (as opposed as Web 3.0/Internet 2.0) – formation of Information, you as a reader, writer, and much more

    - BTW I am writing this post while I am watching a lecture C++0x (yes, C++0x) on at Univ. of Waterloo made by Prof. Bjarne Stroustrup – Prof. Stroustrup, think about C++ 3.0, borrow somthing nice from Ruby, the world is way too different now as opposed to 1980s

    Frontier Space – http://www.hwswworld.com/space
    Frontier Blog – http://www.hwswworld.com/wp

  • http://www.noisecontrolpublishing.com/wp Christopher J. Bradley

    Dear Mr. Lessig,
    It appals me to think that we might even consider electing a white woman from the South to the office of president of the United States. It would be like instituting the same sort of gentrification and slavery re-enactment of pre-civil war decision making. She is not black, the black people of the world should not support her. She is nothing but an Uncle Tom to these people. and has no place in politics for having claimed she is Black or in any way controls the Black Vote.
    Here’s something else to consider. I am not black and would prefer to see Barack Obama as president. Here’s why: He’s a man, he’s from the Chicago area political machine, and knows what it takes to call shots, and he will work with high technologies people to make a difference. It is proven, just by things like his “Ring Tone” campaign, which while not that technically advanced, is quite complex, and proves his interest in at least joking around with Netizens.
    Hillary Clinton does not care about the net, she is from the old school, the kind of Old School white mafia that had Kennedy Killed out of spite, and I don’t care much for the spam she keeps sending to my e-mail either. Its a complete disrespect to all of us, especially when she responds to few or none of her New York constituents, except when elections are at stake.
    Personally I hope this 2k8 election swallows her whole.

    Christopher J. Bradley
    NEW YORKER.

  • http://www.proinoffice.com Guess

    My hope would be to cap campaign contributions at a level that would be reasonable to expect of the average American. This would, hopefully, diminish the influence of ‘Pioneers’ and other campaign cash bundlers.

  • http://www.1stlawyerinfo.com Lawyer

    When ATT lobbies Congress, it represents 302,000 employees and millions of direct shareholders or indirect shareholders through mutual funds, pensions and annuities.

  • maiden

    I am an “average” American. I go to work, try to pay my bills on time, look after my grandkids when needed, try to get some quality time in with my hubby, read, write and surf the net. I have never met a lobbyist. I don’t know any one who ever has met a lobbyist. I don’t belong to any organzations (that I know of) who engage in doing business with the government or anyone else via a lobbyist. I live in a working class neighborhood with working class concerns. Most of the people I live are around are too busy being drained by their jobs too be politically active. On Sunday most of them stay home all day and relax…probably watching tv doing laundry, and cooking. However, I don’t know anyone who wants to give up their freedoms to speak, to watch what they want, to be at peace with the rest of the world. No one I know believes that out of the four people who represent them in the federal government that any really care about the heavy burdens of this economy on we feel on our backs!
    To date, I haven’t found a website that reaches down out of the towering pillars of intellectual discussion to reach the “average” Amercian. And to be perfectly honest, I love the fact that intellectuals still exist and have not been snuffed out by those who detest people that think and speak what they think in an effort to resist domination and control by self serving power mongers whoever and wherever they are.
    My point…The “average” American must be mobilized, because…intellectuals cannot reverse the trend of corporate domination over government, and over the governance of people, rather than “by the people” All Alone. We need a breakthrough. I don’t see it being Obama, Clinton, or any other “runner”. They may slow the tide, but they won’t reverse the damages, they will simply tow the line.
    Hope I didn’t take up too much of your time…I’m just an average Amrican with above average concerns!
    maiden..the USA

  • http://wagerweb.com Justin

    I am not sure about Hillary’s chances right now, I think Oprah’s support for Obama really hurt her it bit strongly into her women support and consolidated all blacks for Obama. I think one of the best trackers for elections is the gambling line as people will only put money on what they think will win, I have watched the line on Clinton drop steadily for the past weeks since Oprah began campaigning for Obama lines are at wagerweb.com Politics Betting I prefer following these lines to polls as I feel they are just as accurate if not more

  • http://www.dir-9.com raffyman

    How about the energy industry? Lobby for permission to dump more crap into the environment – or the pork industry? I’m sure the people of the latest targeted community are going to be so appreciative of all the new money brought in by that new pig farm they arent going to mind at all the perpeptual ofactory assault from being downwind of a Million gallon “lagoon” of pig shit. The lobbyists responsible for increasing the limits on solid particulate emissions from these places or, better still, getting massive volumes of pig shit removed from the list of things considered “toxic waste” – those folks are just completely working for those “average” pork consumers right? Because they’re hte ones who have to live near these places and will struggle with the lowered property values and indoor alerts. You can bet the people profiting most from those laws never have to deal with the stink of pigshit… unless they happen to drive by a farm on their way to the airport.