October 19, 2008  ·  Lessig


Just over 6 months ago, I agreed with Joe Trippi to help start a movement for fundamental reform in Congress. We understood that this was a long term project. But as we felt then — and as the events of the last 6 months only confirmed — we face, as Al Gore has put it, “a democracy crisis.” And until we fix this, we won’t fix any of the critical problems that face our society.

Many of you urged me to do this. And so I’m asking now for a favor in return. We’ve started. We’ve made important progress. But we need you now to help us make an important mark before this election comes to an end.

Our first project has been to get Members of Congress as well as candidates for Congress to take a stand on our issues of reform. We don’t demand that they agree with any particular reform (yet). We simply call upon them to have the courage at least to say where they stand.

The five people you see pictured above are the first five Members of Congress to take a stand: Barney Frank (D-MA), Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), Jim Cooper (D-TN), Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), and John Tierney (D-MA). Four Democrats, and one Republican have signed a pledge to support planks in our platform for reform. These 5 are joined now by more than 150 challengers who have taken a stand.

That’s a start. But it’s not good enough. And so I’m asking again: please help us get Members and candidates to take a stand. You can join our “pester” campaign by clicking here, and we’ll make it extremely easy for you to write, or call, or email members or candidates who have not yet taken a stand.

This should be a simple thing in a democracy: Tell us, candidate, what you believe. It should be a hard thing to hide from. Yet in the politics of today, the simple thing is to hide. Help us make the simple hard.

Meanwhile, here’s a link to the latest version of the Change Congress talk.

  • http://realtech.burningbird.net Shelley

    I spent yesterday morning at the St. Louis Zoo. It’s one of the best in the country and it doesn’t charge admission, important considering how many families couldn’t afford to go to the zoo if it weren’t free. Most of the costs for the zoo come from state funds, private donors, and memberships. Some of the upgrades, though, have come through “earmarks” brought about by Representative Blunt.

    Not, foolish things, either. The current one is a plan to provide a walkway over the road between the main parking lot and the zoo, after a 6 year old was killed by a speeding drive not long ago.

    You see the Bridge to Nowhere and I see a walkway to keep kids from being killed. Or a planetarium projector so that a favorite planetarium show in Chicago can continue to educate the thousands.

    Earmarks in and of themselves are not “bad”. What is bad is when they don’t provide a decent return on their cost. You don’t eliminate earmarks, you get congress to be more effective with the use of the earmarks.

    You talk about PACs but there’s a PAC for doctors and nurses heavily advocating for health care for all people in the US. Are they evil? Should they be denied?

    You talk about making Congressional reps more transparent, but what’s more transparent than the voting record? Yet, who accesses it?

    Some of your platform makes sense, but most of it is so fuzzy as to border on the ludicrous. You have some vague ideas, yet nothing with any detail about how any of it could be implemented. You support the elimination of concepts like earmarks, but don’t tell us how special projects such as the St. Louis walkway get funded? Or how we should spend time worry about something that equals about 1% of the US budget every year — this following on the $700 billion bail out of the finance industry.

    I’m sorry, but Change Congress just isn’t credible.

  • http://realtech.burningbird.net Shelley

    Oops, sorry for the typos.

    PS I have to assume you support McCain, since earmarks are one of his bugaboos.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    I was going to send you this earlier, but thought better of it:

    [begin excerpt]

    In the debate, McCain portrayed Barack Obama as an excessive spender, and he punctuated his attack (twice) with this example:

    “[Obama] voted for nearly a billion dollars in pork barrel earmark projects, including, by the way, $3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois. My friends, do we need to spend that kind of money?”

    Turns out, a lot of people think we do. This is no ordinary overhead projector from your 5th grade classroom. The blog Cosmic Variance sums it up:

    “If you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting the Adler Planetarium, you’d probably guess that the ‘overhead projector’ he’s talking about is the spectacular ‘Sky Theater’ — one of the most engrossing, gorgeous venues for displaying visuals about space.”
    [end excerpt]

    It’s just not so simple. And now you’re playing into wingnut hands, as I keep Cassandra’ing :-(.

    Look, I know the counter-argument, that even if they have malicious intent, your cause is pure in the abstract. The real-world problem is asymmetry, that they can use you for their malicious intent a lot more readily that you can get help for your pure cause out of them. Fine wine + sewage is sewage, not slightly less fine wine.

  • http://cowsandmilk.net David Hall

    Shelley, you should recognize that candidates can make a stance that is against the tenets that Change Congress “stands for”. For instance, Barney Frank only supports 2 of the 4 planks ( http://change-congress.org/tag/p/2466/ ). And he seems to be against the two planks you disagree with. And I love the zoo in Forest Park as much as anyone else, so I might agree. I don’t agree on the bridge though. It’s not like it’s a 4-lane highway between the parking lot and the zoo.

    On the transparency issue, voting record is only a small portion of what occurs in Congress. Quite frequently deals are made behind closed doors and congressional proceedings are not public. And a large portion of the record is in forms that are not easily accessible to the public. In a world where companies like Yahoo, Google, and many other companies are able to open up their data in a way that can be easily accessed by third parties, the government has a long way to go. Many things are “public”, but are provided in the form of pdfs that are not trivial to extract text from or search.

  • http://www.teresi.us Scott Teresi

    For people new to Change Congress who want to see the pledge before you actually call/write your congressperson, I believe the pledge is here

    It might be helpful to link that from the blog post above or more prominently on the Pester campaign page.

  • UserGoogol

    Shelley: Lessig has been pretty open about supporting Obama.

    In general, Obama supports the Change Congress platform, although I agree with you that it’s rather unpleasantly vague and I have trouble supporting it for the same reason. On earmarks, McCain talks about it more, but Obama has had in his issues page for a while that he wants to push earmark reform. (Although like you he emphasizes reforming earmarks over eliminating them.) Also, he was rather vocal (both on the stump and on his issues page) about not accepting money from PACs or Federal lobbyists, and increasing transparency in Congress. (And as for the fourth plank of Change-Congress, he is a cosponsor of the Senate version of the Fair Elections Now Act, although he’s less vocal about this.)

  • http://realtech.burningbird.net Shelley

    David, McCain accepted public financing, which is why all of the anti-Obama ads running in the St. Louis news stations this week are paid for directly by the Republican party.

    Do you see how public campaign financing is more mockery than goodness?

    As or deals behind closed doors, what makes anyone think that any of this would be exposed? If you’re taking payola you’re certainly not going to record this in your weekly calendar.

    Yet what does impact on us, is what our congressional leaders vote on. If you have someone representing you who votes against your interests, vote them out of office. Doesn’t matter why they vote the way they do–if you don’t agree, get rid of them.

    There’s already rules in place about what kind of gifts our political leaders can accept, and how they’re supposed to be reported. But as we’re seeing with Stevensen in Alaska, what matters rules? Adding more rules won’t change the game.

    The problem is, you’re going after Congress when you should be going after the people in this country. Rather than add more rules that will just ignored in Congress, educate the American people as to how to look beyond single issue voting, to become more involved in the voting process, to become better informed.

    The problems we have with our current government isn’t because Congress or the Presidency is “bad”, it’s because we, as citizens have abrogated all of our responsibility in favor of listening to our favorite talking head on the news, reading only our favorite online pundit, and maybe watching a debate. I mean, how many of us really think that being able to shoot a moose and seeing Russia from our kitchen windows are qualifications for public office?

    All fhe changes you want to make to Congress amount to a hill of beans if true change does not begin with the citizen. What you should be running is a Change Citizen campaign. Change the voter, and the Congress will follow.

  • http://realtech.burningbird.net Shelley

    Sigh, that should be Stevens. Long live the typos.

  • Rick

    Typos be damned, Shelley makes some great points. It does start with us, and many good things are financed by earmarks, but I don’t think the effort is misguided or futile.

    In my view the central theme of Change Congress and similar efforts is simple: transparency of the governing process. If greater transparency is achieved it’s reasonable to expect that the unsavory aspects of earmarking, campaign financing, lobbying, even fundamental decision-making, will be diminished.
    For example, last week we were advised by the administration of the high likelihood of a terrorist event prior to the end of January. What do we make of that? Some of us take it at face value, seeing it as evidence that the “war on terror” is an important aspect to consider in our upcoming elections. Others see it purely as a cooked-up continuation of “fear politics” with the specific intention of influencing the election. My point is not that either of these views is necessarily correct. The point is that “black box” government as we’ve had for the past eight years (or more) is highly polarizing; too many of us have become unsure, if not downright suspicious, of our own government’s intentions, even on issue fundamental to our well-being. A government that finds itself not trusted has only itself to blame.
    Okay, Bush is an easy target. What of Congress? A few weeks ago we were given to believe that the raging and lengthy Congressional debate was about whether or not to bail out Wall Street. It turns out the bail-out was a given. The debate was actually a negotiation with the initial supporters asking the initial “nays’ (in essence), “What’s it gonna take for you to change your vote?” Now that’s a valid question if it affects the substance of the bill, but it didn’t. What we got was a raft of hefty earmarks. Again, greater transparency may well have produced a more productive debate on substance rather than butt-covering payoffs.

    Change Congress and others seek not only to elicit change but to give Congress some idea of what those changes should be. In my view transparency is key. All else follows.

  • http://lessig.org/blog/2008/10/preparing_for_change_please_he.html#comments Angie Smith

    A government that finds itself not trusted has only itself to blame.

    Nothing is more transparent than the voting records of Congressman. How many of us check those records out? Those mostly liberal, left-wing illuminatis speak out of both sides of their mouths! For example, the bail-out was already cut and dried. With their lowest rating in history, it’s no wonder we’re so suspicious of anything Congress does or says.

  • http://lessig.org/blog/2008/10/preparing_for_change_please_he.html#comments Angie Smith

    You want transparency? How many of us check Congress’ voting records? We need to be much better informed on the issues. And why shouldn’t we be? The bail-out by mostly liberal-thinking, lefty illuminatis was already decided before any “discussion” took place! Is it any wonder we’re suspicious of our government?

  • http://www.constituentresponse.com CRT

    The change we need is wholesale!

    We need to focus on “un-electing” those Senators and Representatives who voted “yes” for the Bailout. They were willing to ignore the 90% of us who were against the Bailout, clearly demonstrating that they do NOT represent us. Further, the Bailout is not working–and these corrupt companies are using our tax dollars instead to pay for executive bonuses, junkets, and to buy each other out. It’s got to stop–and that mean getting rid of those who voted “yes.”

    The Constituent Response Team has put together a Bailout Vote Map that makes it easy (as a mouse click) to find out how your Senators and Representatives voted. Tell all your family and friends about it, so they can find out how their Representative and Senators voted before they cast their ballot on Tuesday. 

    The Constituent Response Team has also just published pre-customized web banners and ads targeted at those who voted “yes” for the Bailout. You can easily paste these ads onto your website or blog (or social networking site) using simple embedding code (provided off course).

    If you are interested in either, check out Constituent Response at http://www.constituentresponse.com . The Bailout Vote Map is on the main page; the “Vote ‘no” on incumbents who voted ‘yes’” ads are under the Host CRT Ads link.