May 28, 2009  ·  Lessig

Change Congress launched its second “good souls corruptionattack today, this time against Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson. (Two Dems in a row; we’ll be more balanced next time.) The attack has excited an hysterical response from the Senator’s office. Read about the charge (here) and the response (below), and then please sign our petition to Senator Nelson.

At the beginning of May, Senator Nelson was reported to have said that including a “public option” (giving Americans a choice to opt into a public system) in a national health care proposal was a “deal breaker,” and that he would “form a coalition of like-minded centrists opposed to the creation of a public plan, as a counterweight to Democrats pushing for it.”

On May 7, our friends at Public Campaign produced a report that showed that Senator Nelson has received more than “$2 million from insurance and health care interests in his three campaigns for federal office.”

These two facts together expose Senator Nelson to the charge of “Good Souls corruption” — legal, even ethical acts that reasonably lead the public to wonder whether it is the merits or the money that is driving this Senator’s decision.

Senator Nelson responded immediately to the attack by issuing the following press release. [Bracketed annotations are courtesy of me, not the Senator's staff.]

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NELSON: NEBRASKANS BEWARE OF MISLEADING FUNDRAISING GIMMICK


May 28, 2009 – The office of Nebraska’s Senator Ben Nelson today warned Nebraskans not to fall for a misleading fundraising gimmick by a special interest group called Change Congress. The group has issued a press release concerning Senator Nelson and said it was sending mailers to Nebraskans.

Senator Nelson’s spokesman Jake Thompson issued this statement:

“There’s no doubt Senator Nelson understands the insurance industry’s important role providing health care for millions of Americans. After all, he’s been an insurance executive [The ever effective, "I'm a former insurance exec!" defense], an insurance industry regulator, a governor who created a children’s health insurance program, and today he represents Nebraska, arguably the insurance capital of the world. [And no doubt the insurance industry fundraising capital of the world.]

But let’s look at this group closely. They claim, ‘Ben Nelson said he may not support Obama’s plan.’ Can they send us a copy of the plan? [Maybe not, but we can certainly send you again to the report indicating he opposed a key element of the President's plan] No, because President Obama hasn’t offered a specific plan yet. Next, they ask if people are ready to change Congress and ‘take on special interests’ and ‘only donate to politicians who prove they are willing to do that.’ Then, they promote an election law proposal they’re lobbying for.

So, let’s get this straight: These people are endorsing something they haven’t seen [No idea what this means: We're endorsing a bill introduced by Senators Durbin and Specter. We've seen this bill.], criticizing Senator Nelson for something he hasn’t done [Interesting. Where is the press release denying the reports from the beginning of May?] and using health care as a fundraising gimmick [A "fundraising gimmick"? If he means we're fundraising around this issue, that's false. If he means our strike is a "gimmick," then what's he so upset about?] –to lobby for unrelated special interest legislation. ["UNRELATED"!?!! Are you kidding me? One can define corruption as unrelated to the objects corrupted, but that doesn't make it so.] These people have a political agenda that has nothing remotely [We have an agenda. It is to create a Congress where legislation is on the merits -- not, as it is today, guided by the implicit threat of large campaign contributors.] to do with helping Nebraskans get and keep affordable, high quality health care. Their effort is silly, sad and sophomoric. [Unlike this sort of name calling.]

Nebraskans are far too smart to fall for just another special interest group grabbing a hot issue and misrepresenting both the president [Um, where did we misrepresent the President?] and Senator Nelson [And where was Senator Nelson's letter to Ryan Grimm complaining he had misrepresented him -- before we raised this issue?] to raise money to lobby Congress [And where is our effort to raise money to lobby Congress -- we've asked people to STOP giving money to Congress.]

Here are some facts about Senator Nelson and health care:

  1. During his presidential campaign and recently President Obama has said Americans who like their private insurance will get to keep it, or have the option to join another plan.
  2. Ben Nelson agrees and he’s eager to see more details from the president, and he wants to make sure that the 85 percent of Nebraskans who have insurance today will continue to have the option of staying with their existing plans.
  3. Senator Nelson believes that all Americans should receive health insurance and agrees with President Obama that those who currently have health insurance should be assured that it won’t be taken away from them.
  4. Senator Nelson is spending much of the congressional break in Nebraska this week meeting with Nebraskans, listening to them discuss health care and reform ideas. He’s listening to patients, providers, employers and others. He looks forward to hearing from many more Nebraskans on ways to strengthen, broaden and provide stability in America’s health care system.”
  5. [But please notice, Senator Nelson has not indicated that he supports a central idea in Obama's plan -- that Nebraskans will also have the freedom to choose a public option if (and imagine this) the private options are too costly.]

As I said, this is only the second in a series. (The first was Representative Conyers.) We will continue to call out members of both parties — and again, I promise, a Republican is coming soon — who make it too easy for Americans to believe (as 88% in my district believe) that money buys results in Congress.

Congress could change this problem tomorrow — by enacting the Trustworthy Government Now Act (aka, the “Fair Elections Now Act”). And of course Members can avoid the charge of “good souls corruption” by co-sponsoring that bill now.

But meanwhile, we’ll be working hard to make more enemies, by making the status quo very uncomfortable. Nice was for the 90s. CHANGE was the promise for today.

Tell Ben Nelson to (be)come clean.

Join our Donor Strike — promising not to support any candidate who doesn’t co-sponsor the Trustworthy Government Now Act.

And finally, celebrate this good news just in: Senator Nelson now indicates that he has changed his view, and is now “open” to the public option.

Bravo, Senator. Now about the system of funding that makes people wonder?

May 6, 2009  ·  Lessig

In my work to push citizen funded elections (the hybrid between public funding (which is citizen funds) and small-donor contributions (citizen funding)), I have been astonished and deeply depressed by the number of very rich souls who in theory should support this change, but who resist it because, as I sense, they don’t want to give up their own access to power.

These large Democratic Party contributors are different. They all signed a letter demanding the existing system be scrapped, and that citizen funded elections replace it.

Bravo. Reform begins at home.

Naomi Aberly
Grant Abert
Elaine Attias
Amb. Elizabeth Bagley
Smith Bagley
Robert Bowditch
William Budinger
James Kimo Campbell
Peter Copen
Rosemary Faulkner
Ron Feldman
Christopher Findlater
Murray Galinson
James Gollin
Lee Halprin
Francis W. Hatch
Arnold Hiatt
John Hunting
Greg Jobin-Leeds
John S. Johnson
Wayne Jordan
Craig Kaplan
Michael Kieschnick
Steve Kirsch
Arthur D. Lipson
Henry Lord
Anna Hawken McKay
Rob McKay
Sally Minard
Alan Patricof
Susan Patricof
Doug Phelps
Steve Phillips
Drummond Pike
Rachel Pritzker
Abby Rockefeller
Charles Rodgers
Marsha Rosenbaum
Manny Rouvelas
Vin Ryan
Deborah Sagner
Guy T. Saperstein
Dick Senn
Steve Silberstein
Alison Smith
William Soskin
Martin Stevenson
Pat Stryker
Ellen Susman
Steve Susman
Margery Tabankin
Kate Villers
Philippe Villers
Scott Wallace
George Wallerstein
Marc Weiss
Al Yates
Joe Zimlich

April 14, 2009  ·  Lessig

os_logo.jpg

The amazing folks at the Center for Responsive Politicsopensecrets.org have released (under a Creative Commons license) 200 million records to help the world understand how influence in Washington works. This is enormously good news.

Even better is that today they were nominated for a Webby. Here’s where you can vote to thank them in the best possible way.

March 23, 2009  ·  Lessig

So Creative Commons just passed 100,000,000 photos on Flickr.

Change Congress just passed $1,100,000 withheld from candidates in our strike4change campaign.

And a year ago, we launched Change Congress at an event hosted by the Sunlight Foundation in Washington, DC.

Celebrate CC by buying one of Joi’s limited edition “FreeSouls” books.

Celebrate C-C by joining our strike. Or even better, by donating all the money in the world (b/c that’s what this campaign stands against).

March 11, 2009  ·  Lessig

More people I admire missing the point (for which, as I’ve said again and again, I’m happy to take responsibility but which, again and again, begs clarification): this time, Ed Brayton.

Ed says:

Lessig is arguing that that the bill is bad policy and that Conyers is being paid off by the publishing industry to get the measure passed.

No. No. And again, Ed, no. To be “paid off by the publishing industry” is a crime. It’s called bribery. To be given a campaign contribution in exchange for introducing or passing legislation is also a crime. Any quid-pro-quo for legislative action is banned six ways to Sunday.

But as I said and said and said, I am not accusing anyone of any crime. I’m not even accusing anyone of anything unethical. My charge is that by (a) introducing legislation that has no good public policy justification behind it and which (b) does not benefit your own constituents while (c) being disproportionately supported in financial contributions by the single industry that would benefit from the legislation, you invite the charge (as 88% of citizens in my district believe) that “money buys results in Congress.” WHETHER OR NOT “money bought” this result, you have committed this wrong. The wrong is the relationship, and the suggestion the relationship begs. It is not — and again, NOT — that the person accused is “being paid off” by anyone.

I make this point over and over again in the (now close to 1 billion) talks I’ve given about “corruption.” They’re collected at lessig.blip.tv. I understand how it is rational for no one (or very few) to spend the 20 to 60 minute necessary to watch those talks completely. But here’s a four minute clip about another popular Democrat. Watch this, and maybe the idea of “good soul corruption” will become clearer.

What could a “good soul” do to avoid the charge of being “good soul corrupt”? Well, the simplest is to make sure the that the only time you introduce legislation that 33 Nobel Prize winning scientists believe would harm science (or the equivalent), it plainly benefits your constituents. A bit more difficult, but certainly appropriate: As a chairman of a committee, refuse to solicit or accept contributions from the interests your committee regulates. And most important, and ultimately: pass legislation that provides for “citizen-funded elections” — so that when you support legislation with no good public purpose behind it, no one could believe it was because of the money.

And what could a good soul citizen do to end good soul corruption? Join our donor strikestrike4change.com — and thereby refuse to support any federal politician who doesn’t support this plainly corrupt system.

March 11, 2009  ·  Lessig

The usually exactly right Karl Lenz writes: “Is Lessig Shilling Against Open Access?” He laments the “damage done to the goodwill of the other side by this baseless smear.”

This is missing the point, twice.

The merits of the “open access” argument stand or fall on their own. There was a fear of some (but discounted by others) that Conyers had introduced the bill to enable it to be swept into another bill without further process. Whatever else, given he has now defended the bill to remedy the same lack of process that led to the rule the bill attacks, it is doubtful that will happen.

But I do disagree with to the suggestion this is a “baseless smear.”

It is a smear, no doubt, in the sense that it is a criticism, not so much of the man, but of a system. It is this system that produces enormous cynicism about how government works. That Conyers receives money from the auto industry and votes with their interests isn’t the sort of thing that produces cynicism, just as the fact that Senator Grassley receives money from farmers and votes with their interests isn’t the sort of thing that produces cynicism. Those sort of contributions — and votes — are the very best one could expect in a system of privately funded elections — funding that fits the interests of the district; votes that track the interests of the district.

But if there’s a very best, there’s a very worst — funding and votes that have nothing to do with the interests of a district. That’s what this bill is. Are the votes of the 14th District in Michigan benefitted by a bill that will increase the cost of access to government funded research? Is protecting publishers the principle that got John Conyers elected to Congress? Is this really — as Lenz suggests — one of his “convictions”? Is John Conyers really a Congressman who has as a “conviction” the idea that we should pay for scientific research twice? That publishers whose business model conflicts with the best business model for science in the digital age deserve Congress’ protection?

The whole point in this criticism (aka, “smear”) was that there was no good reason for the support of this bill beyond doing a favor to an important industry. And to do a favor for an industry by supporting a bill that has no good reason behind it (and 33 Nobel Prize winners, and the current and former head of the NIH against it) while receiving 2x the contributions of those who didn’t sponsor the bill is exactly the behavior that produces such cynicism.

So it is an attack, no doubt. But it is certainly not baseless. “Baseless” would have been to suggest Conyers was bribed. Of course he wasn’t — Conyers is a hero of mine and my kind (libs); we don’t believe our heros are criminals. It is instead an attack on precisely the behavior that leads 88% of the people in my district to believe “money buys results” in Congress. Conyers voting to protect GM doesn’t produce that cynicism. Conyers voting to protect a bunch of foreign publishers does.

Now if you’re someone like me who believes that this cynicism is THE problem in Congress today — if you believe that eliminating it, by restoring a system that could lead people to believe Congress was doing what it doing because of the voters, or even because of stupidity, but not because of the money, was the most important thing that Congress could do now (and especially now when all the attention that should be focused on the importance of stimulus is now focused instead on 8,000 or more earmarks said to have “larded up” the bill), then what Conyers did is precisely the sort of thing that needs to be attacked. Not just him (we’ve got others coming). Not just Democrats (we’ve been criticized already for being too harsh on Republicans). But him and anyone else who gives us a chance to point to the kind of relationship that draws this critical institution into doubt.

But I’ll confess, this isn’t a role I enjoy. It is my nature (nothing to be proud of, but this is the reality) to ingratiate, not criticize. I don’t have the courage of a Stallman. Too many of my cycles are focused on how or whether what I do will affect whether others like me. I am more comfortable on the inside than on the outside. And when we tried to find allies in this battle, I totally understood those who didn’t have the stomach for this. “Coward” is a name I’ve given myself more often than any other.

But I really really mean what I said at the end of the first post on this “baseless smear”:

This is no time to play nice.

Our government is corrupted. That is not to say members accept bribes, or that legislation is the product of a quid-pro-quo: fewer accept bribes today than at any point in our past; I doubt any legislation is the product of a quid-pro-quo. These are good people, in a corrupted system — a system that doesn’t focus where it should (on the views of the citizens of each district) but instead focuses where Members must (on where they need to raise money).

No one not benefiting from this system could defend it. Each of us, I believe, has a duty to change it. And change here will require something more than happy, glad-handing, smiles – however miserable that makes wimps like me.

March 9, 2009  ·  Lessig

Mr. Conyers says I “cross the line.” He says I label his motivations for introducing this bill as “corrupt,” that I accuse him of “shilling,” and that I “dismiss” his bill as nothing more than a “money for influence scheme.” On the basis of this “one piece of legislation,” he says I have waved away “forty years of fighting against special interests.” He insists that he has “earned a bit more of the benefit of the doubt” and “that there is far more to the ‘open access’ story than [my] muckracking tale lets on.” (Mike Eisen and my original posts are here and here. My blog post is here.)

First, as to substance: As others have shown without doubt, there is absolutely no “more to the ‘open access’ story” than my and Mike Eisen’s criticism let on. (See the rebuttals especially here and here.) This bill is nothing more than a “publishers’ protection act.” It is an awful step backwards for science — as 33 Nobel Prize winners, the current and former head of the NIH, the American Library Association, and the Alliance for Taxpayer Access have all said. And Mr. Conyers knows this. Practically the identical bill was introduced in the last Congress. Mr. Conyers’ committee held hearings on that bill. The “open access” community rallied to demonstrate that this publishers’ bill was bad for science. Even some of the cosponsors of the bill admitted the bill was flawed. Yet after that full and fair hearing on this flawed bill, like Jason in Friday the 13th, the bill returned — unchanged, as if nothing in the hundreds of reasons for why this bill was flawed mattered to the sponsors.

Second, as to “corruption”: There are corrupt Members in Congress — fewer, I believe, than at any time in our history, but the Randy “Duke” Cunninghams or Ted “A Series of Tubes” Stevens mean there must be at least some. John Conyers is not one of that class — and nothing in what I wrote said anything different. I neither accused him of “shilling” nor labeled his “motivations” as “corrupt.” The word “shilling” appeared in a question, begged by the combination of a disproportionate contribution and sponsorship of a baseless law. The word “corrupt” described a system, not a Member. Conyers is not “corrupt.” Neither are his motivations. He is instead an extraordinary representative, a hero to many of us, the last member of the Judiciary Committee to vote to impeach Nixon still sitting on that committee, and a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. He is an extraordinarily good soul, like the vast majority who choose to serve in government today.

But these good souls work in a corrupted system. For of course I believe that Congress is defined by a “money for influence scheme” — as do thousands of others who have joined Change Congress’s “donor strike,” pledging not to give a penny more to candidates who don’t support fundamentally reforming our corrupt campaign-finance system. (Join here.) And who could believe any differently? Not a “scheme” in the crude sense that people are bribed, or that there’s a quid pro quo, this money for that legislation. But in the very real sense that money buys access, and that Members — some of whom spend between 30% and 70% of their time raising money to get back to Congress — develop a finely honed sixth sense, constantly aware of how what they do might affect their ability to raise money.

Who could possibly think that this system doesn’t corrupt what government does? Who could possibly believe it benign? The answer of course is no one — not the least a Member like Mr. Conyers who has spent forty years watching an honorable institution dissolve into a cabal of overpaid telemarketers. Just think about it: While America is facing crises more severe than any in the past generation, many (and maybe most?) Members of Congress are spending most of their time raising money to get back to Congress. This is like firefighters who take a coffee break in the middle of rescuing a trapped child, or police officers who stop at Starbucks on the way to a robbery. What sane person can look at this system and not think something has gone fundamentally wrong?

It is time that Congress take responsibility for the cynicism this system has produced. It is not enough for good souls to insist on their goodness. A good soul must act to change a corrupted system.

Supporting citizens’ funding of the nation’s elections — as Mr. Conyers has — is an important first step. That one change, I believe, would do more than any other to restore trustworthiness in Congress.

But that’s not all you could do, Mr. Conyers. You have it within your power to remove any doubt about the reasons you have for sponsoring the legislation you sponsor: Stop accepting contributions from the interests your committee regulates. This was the principle of at least some committee chairmen in the past. It is practically unheard of today. But you could set an important example for others, and for America, about how an uncorrupted system of government might work. And you could do so without any risk to your own position — because the product of your forty years of extraordinary work for the citizens of Michigan means that they’ll return you to office whether or not you spend one dime on a reelection. Indeed, if you did this, I’d promise to come to Michigan and hand out leaflets for your campaign.

Until you do this, Mr. Conyers, don’t lecture me about “crossing a line.” For I intend to cross this line as often as I can, the outrage and scorn of Members of Congress notwithstanding. This is no time to play nice. And yours is just the first in a series of many such stories to follow — targeting Republicans as well as Democrats, people who we agree with on substance as well as those we don’t, always focusing on bad bills that make sense only if you follow the money.

Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, you can help us. Join our strike4change, refusing to support any candidate who doesn’t support citizens’ funding of the nation’s elections. Or volunteer to help us track down more examples like this one.

We will take the heat from the elected elites. From you, we need just the support it will take to show enough that real change must happen — now.