August 25, 2011  ·  Lessig  · Reblogged from  Huffington Post

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has joined a small but important group of business leaders who believe it right to use their personal influence to make government work better. In a letter to colleagues and friends, Schultz pledged to end his contributions to political campaigns “until [politicians] strike a bipartisan, balanced long-term debt deal that addresses both entitlements and revenues.” He also pledged on behalf of Starbucks to “hire and accelerate employment.” Both pledges flow from an obviously deeply felt view that something profoundly wrong has happened to our government and nation. His efforts — like the efforts of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates — are not first steps in a political campaign. They are the actions of decent citizens trying to make a society better.

Schultz is right that something profoundly bad has happened to American politics. He is also right to tie that profound bad to the endless addiction that our elected officials have to campaign cash. We have entered a time when politicians like Republican Scott Brown are not even embarrassed to argue that while programs like Medicare and Social Security must be on the budget chopping block, subsidies to big oil (a contributor to Scott Brown) should not. Or when Democrat Xavier Becerra, appointed to the “super Congress” that will have extraordinary power to make spending and revenue budget decisions, doesn’t think twice about cashing in on his newly-found power by touting it in a fundraising letter to DC lobbyists. (Update: Congressman Becarra writes that he “did not know, did not ask, would not ask and I will not ask any of my supporters to use my appointment to the select committee for purposes outside its principle focus.” Bravo.) Or when Congress, in the middle of two wars, a recession, a jobs crisis, and an impending government shutdown, spends most of its attention on whether “swipe fees” for debit cards should be higher (banks win) or lower (retailers win). Why would it do that? Because of course, both sides in that fight are only too eager to shower the not-yet-wooed Members with endless campaign cash. In context after context, the priorities and sensibilities of this Congress are queered by its perpetual addiction to campaign funds. Nothing in Washington will change until we change this.

But however right his motivation, Schultz’s pledge to withhold campaign dollars until Congress agrees on a budget won’t fix this mess. No doubt, you can get an addict to clean up the garage by withholding his fix until he is done. But that won’t help the addict end his addiction. The same with our cash-addicted-Congress: What reformers like Schultz need to do is to use their power to get Congress to end its addiction, by pushing for reforms that would make it possible for government to act sanely and independently of special interest funders.

That was the objective of Arnold Hiatt (former CEO of Stride Rite) and Alan Hassenfeld (former Chairman of Hasbro, Inc.) when they launched a similar campaign just last year, by writing (PDF) to the largest campaign funders, and asking them to withhold funds from any candidate who didn’t pledge to support the Fair Elections Now Act — a bill that would give candidates the chance to opt out of special interest funding, and into a voluntary system that would limit campaign contributions to $100, with each contribution matched 4 to 1 by the government. Their letter convinced scores of large funders — including producer and director J.J. Abrams, Edgar Bronfman Jr., CEO of Warner Music, Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s, and Vin Ryan, Chairman of Schooner Capital — to withhold campaign contributions from special interest candidates. It also inspired thousands of smaller contributors to make a similar pledge.

The Hiatt/Hassenfeld strategy uses the leverage of campaign contributions to change the system for funding campaigns. It doesn’t withhold the fix. It ends the addiction. There are any number of important causes that powerful souls like Schultz could organize funder strikes around — bank reform, health care reform, tax reform, global warming legislation — for our current Congress can’t address any of these issues sensibly because special interests always block change. But far better is a strategy to change the environment within which these special interests can always block change. That was Hiatt and Hassenfeld’s objective — an objective that Schultz’s approach cannot achieve.

Schultz could fix this flaw by adding an escape clause to his current pledge. Let contributors promise not to give unless Congress strikes a deal or a candidate pledges to funding reform. Let this powerful movement produce something permanent, rather than a single victory in an endless tale of defeat.

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil,” wrote Thoreau in Walden, “to one striking at the root.” We need souls like Schultz to be that one, striking at the root, if the efforts of the thousands are ever to have an effect.

August 10, 2011  ·  Lessig  · Reblogged from  Huffington Post

Two hundred and twenty four years ago, people of radically different views put aside those differences long enough to save this Nation. America was on the brink of collapse. Its first constitution was an unmitigated disaster. Only a radical, and some say illegal, reform could restore the promise of the nation declared a generation before when it claimed its independence from Britain.

We forget this fact about them today. To us, they all look very much alike — white guys, some in wigs, eloquent and brave no doubt, but certainly not the picture of significant difference in either ideas or values. Yet when the men who founded this nation met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, there were fundamental differences among them. Slavery, for example: The men who founded this nation were critically divided on this fundamental question. Some thought it natural and appropriate. Some thought it the quintessential injustice. Yet they were able to put even this difference aside enough to craft a pact that would give birth to our constitution (and eventually, death to slavery).

On September 24 & 25, I will co-host a conference at Harvard with Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler, on whether it is time for a new constitutional convention. Our conference is obviously not that convention. We don’t pretend to parallel that event two and a quarter centuries ago, and certainly not any of its characters.

But as many of us believe that our nation has come to another moment of crisis in its capacity to govern, some of us believe we must begin to talk through whether fundamental reform through a convention will be required.

Meckler and I want to have that conversation the way our Framers did — as a respectful discussion among people who disagree fundamentally. I have enormous respect for Meckler, and the movement that he helped to birth. But I am not an ally of the Tea Party. I share the belief that our nation needs fundamental reform. I don’t share a belief in the substance of the reform that the Tea Party has pushed.

Yet the differences between Meckler and me, or between the Tea Party and the Left more generally, are tiny as compared to the differences among many of our Founders. However much we disagree, our disagreement is puny as compared to the fight over slavery, or the decision about whether to found this nation as a monarchy or a republic. Meckler and I believe that if THEY could put aside their differences long enough to debate with respect the changes their constitution might need, then WE should be able to put aside our much smaller differences to focus on a way to end our own crisis of governance.

The convention that we will discuss is not, however, the same sort of convention that gave birth to the Constitution. It is instead a convention explicitly envisioned by that constitution. Article V of the Constitution gives the states the power to demand that Congress “call a Convention for proposing amendments” to the Constitution. Such amendments are only valid when ratified by 3/4ths of the states. Never in the history of the Nation has an Article V convention been called — though we came close a century ago, when the call for a convention to make the senate elected was within one vote of the necessary two thirds. That was enough to spur Congress to reform itself, by proposing its own amendment and ending the need for a convention.

We will start this conversation with all of us not yet convinced that a convention is either necessary or wise. It is my view that is is. Meckler doesn’t (yet) share that view. And over the course of the two day event, lawyers, historians, political scientists, and activists from both the Left and the Right will discuss whether and how a convention might proceed.

I am open to being convinced that a convention is unwise (though I would then despair about how we will effect the fundamental reform our government needs). But I am convinced already that much of the debate about a convention is, let’s say, under-informed. We should at least be able to have a conversation that remedies this, even if we can’t agree about whether a convention would be wise.

If you’d like to attend, check out http://conconcon.org. If you can help to cover the costs of this project, you can donate here.

But please save the rage that these efforts at across-the-isle exchange inevitably inspire. I can distinguish between talking to someone, and agreeing with them. We all should recognize that the very reason our Republic embraced a representative democracy was because it was clear to our Framers that there would always be people to disagree with. What we’ve lost is not a world in which everyone agrees. What we’ve lost is a practice of respectful deliberation about those disagreements. If it does nothing else, this Conference on the Constitutional Convention will demonstrate that practice.