March 4, 2009  ·  Lessig

Hoyer to W.H.: Hands off our earmarks - Alex Isenstadt -

Herein brews perhaps the first important battle of reform for this President. I have long thought the President should resign his membership in the Democratic Party — not because he doesn’t or shouldn’t share the values of the Democratic Party, but because it is time we recognize we need a President above either partisanship (which got us the “Contract with America”) or bipartisanship (which got us the Iraq War). But Hoyer’s behavior here makes the point most starkly.

Earmarks are a cancer: Not because they consume a large part of the budget — they don’t; not because we shouldn’t be spending money — we should. But because they feed the system of corruption that is the way Washington works. They are the cornerstone of a system feeding the worst of the lobbying mafia (another plug here for So Damn Much Money), which itself is the cornerstone of K St. capitalism. It was a mistake for Obama not to join McCain in targeting them during the campaign. It is a fantastic thing that he is beginning to target them now.

Cancers can be benign or malignant. This cancer is malignant when it feeds K St. capitalism. It is benign when it is simply a locally informed direction to how the government’s money (aka, the people’s money) should be spent.

And apropo of the benign form of this cancer: I’ve agreed to help Congresswoman Jackie Speier with an experiment for earmark reform. (Decidedly and clearly progressive) Congresswoman Speier voted against the appropriations bill because of the earmarks in the bill. But as reported in the SF Chronicle:

Speier is now trying a novel experiment: She’s put together a citizen’s oversight panel to recommend projects for federal funding, chaired by Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, a critic of earmarks, and including local elected, business and labor leaders. If the model works, she may offer legislation to expand it nationally.

The panel will meet in 3 or 4 public hearings over the next month of so to review earmark proposals. We will then report our recommendations back to her.

The citizen panel idea is completely Speier’s. It is a brilliant idea with enormous potential. More on the potential soon.

March 3, 2009  ·  Lessig

The Huffington Post is running a piece about H.R. 801 (the “Fair Copyright in Research Works Act“), the latest version of John Conyers’ awful idea. The law would forbid entities like the NIH from requiring that recipients of government grants make the product of their research openly accessible. (The current practice requires articles be freely accessible after 12 months.) Instead, Conyers’ proposal would require that after the American taxpayer has paid for the research, the American taxpayer must pay publishers to get access to the product of the research.

The first important word to emphasize in the last sentence is “publishers.” For unlike the ordinary market for creative work, here, the author isn’t paid for his work through the copyright system. It is the government (indirectly) paying for the research that the author (a scientist) creates. Scientists write articles as part of their job; other scientists peer-review those articles (usually for free); and journals then publish those articles without paying the author anything. Those journals, however, then charge libraries across the world an increasingly high rate to get access to the research in those journals. As the industry has become more concentrated, those rates have skyrocketed — rising much faster than inflation.

The “open access movement” was born to create an alternative to this. Even if restrictive copyright was a necessary evil in the days of dead-tree-based publishing, it was still an evil. High costs restrict access. The business model of the scientist is to spread his or her knowledge as widely as possible. Open access journals, such as, for example, those created by the Public Library of Science, have adopted a different publishing model, to guarantee that all all research is freely accessible online (under the freest Creative Commons license) immediately, to anyone around the world. This guarantee of access, however, is not purchased by any compromise in academic standards. There is still a peer-review process. There is still even a paper-based publication.

Pushed by scientists everywhere, the NIH and other government agencies were increasingly exploring this obviously better model for spreading knowledge. Proprietary publishers, however, didn’t like it. And so rather than competing in the traditional way, they’ve adopted the increasingly Washington way of competition — they’ve gone to Congress to get a law to ban the business model they don’t like. If H.R. 801 is passed, the government can’t even experiment with supporting publishing models that assure that the people who have paid for the research can actually access it. Instead, if Conyers has his way, we’ll pay for the research twice.

The insanity in this proposal is brilliantly described by Jamie Boyle in this piece in the FT. But after you read his peace, you’ll be even more puzzled by this. For what possible reason could Conyers have for supporting a bill that 33 Nobel Prize Winners, and the current and former heads of the NIH say will actually hurt scientific research in America? More pointedly, what possible reason would a man from a district that insists on the government “Buying American” have for supporting a bill that basically subsidizes foreign publishers (for the biggest players in this publishing market are non-American firms, making HR 801 a kind of “Foreign Publishers Protection Act”)?

Well no one can know what goes on the heart or mind of Congressman Conyers. But what we do know is what published yesterday: That the co-sponsors of this bill who sit on the Judiciary Committee received on average two-times the amount of money from publishing interests as those who haven’t co-sponsored the bill.

Now maybe that’s just a coincidence. Maybe Conyers and his friends had a reason of principle to support a bill said by experts to “harm science in America.” But if he did, then he more than anyone else should want a system for funding elections that makes it impossible for people like me to suggest that maybe it wasn’t reason that led him to his silly support for such a stupid bill.

Yet another reason to support citizen funded elections. Yet another reason to join the strike (““) Change Congress has launched. Promise not to give money to any candidate who doesn’t support irrevocably citizen funded election. (Come on. You don’t want to give anyway.)

At the very minimum, ask Congressman Conyers to explain exactly why — if it wasn’t the money — he’s so keen to hurt science.

February 25, 2009  ·  Lessig


Jeff Flake (AZ-6, Republican) has introduced a resolution to call for an investigation about the relationship between earmarks and campaign funding. Having just finished Kaiser’s amazing book, So Damn Much Money, I am confirmed in a suspicion I had before the election: that Flake/McCain were right to be so exercised about earmarks, and Obama/Dems were wrong.

The point is not the total amount of earmarks. Indeed, for a liberal like me, I’m keen to see the government spend money (wisely, at least). The point instead is the corruption that the earmarking system engenders. The history of earmarks is the history of a business model, with lobbyists at the core, a Congress dependent upon campaign funding at the edge, and a world of staffers, bureaucrats and former Members keen not to upset their future employers (the lobbyists).

But of course, one simple solution to this “problem” with earmarks would be to remove the corrupting connection — to campaign finance. And the simplest way to do that would be to follow Teddy Roosevelt’s other fantastic idea from 100 years ago — Citizen Funded Elections.

Thus, yet another reason to join the strike — don’t give money to politicians who don’t irrevocably commit to citizen funded elections.

January 27, 2009  ·  Lessig

Breaking news from The Huffington Post:

Three days after receiving $25 billion in federal bailout funds, Bank of America Corp. hosted a conference call with conservative activists and business officials to organize opposition to the U.S. labor community’s top legislative priority.

Participants on the October 17 call — including at least one representative from another bailout recipient, AIG — were urged to persuade their clients to send “large contributions” to groups working against the Employee Free Trade Act (EFCA), as well as to vulnerable Senate Republicans, who could help block passage of the bill.

…Donations of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to Republican senatorial campaigns were needed, they argued…”If a retailer has not gotten involved in this, if he has not spent money on this election, if he has not sent money to [former Sen.] Norm Coleman and all these other guys, they should be shot. They should be thrown out their goddamn jobs,” Marcus declared.

Not only are some of the most non-trusted companies in America blatantly trying to buy off Congress, but they’re using our bailout money to do it.

This will ONLY change when elections are citizen funded. Join our strike4change to (1) starve the beast, (2) just say no, or (3) fix this absurd system — now. No money until a candidate commits to citizen funded elections.

January 27, 2009  ·  Lessig

From the Huffington Post:

Do sex, campaign money, and Change Congress’s new “donor strike” go together?

According to U.S. News & World Report, they do. Here’s an excerpt from their story, “Sex, Campaign Money, and Cleaning Up Politics”:

Don’t like how our politics are paid for? Some people who agree are pushing what I can only call the Lysistrata campaign finance reform plan. In the ancient Greek comedy, women withheld sex from their soldier husbands until they agreed to end an ongoing war.

Substitute sex for money and you have what the folks over at Change Congress are pushing: that donors go “on strike,” refusing to give their money to pols until a campaign finance overhaul is passed (specifically, they favor a system whereby people limiting themselves to small donations would get matching government funds).

They say that they’ve gotten no-contribution pledges from people who gave $400,000 to federal candidates in the last cycle.

So, you heard it from U.S. News & World Report first! Change Congress is bringing sexy back…to the campaign finance reform debate. (Step aside, Justin Timberlake.)

The “donor strike” has amazing momentum, but we need your help to keep going. There are two things you can do today.

First, if you haven’t already, join the strike. We’re at $422,000 in donations withheld–can you help us get to $500,000? With every new striker, we are increasing the pressure on Congress to pass fundamental reform. It’s easy, just click here.

Second, because Change Congress is fighting the special interests, we don’t get money from the fat cats. So we depend on people like you. We’re setting a goal of raising $100,000 in the next month–starting today. This will allow us to really turn up the pressure on Congress — including targeted events in local districts — to make sure politicians are well aware of how much money they’re losing if they oppose reform. If you care about cleaning up our democracy, please help us keep our successful “donor strike” campaign going by chipping in here today.

The donor strike’s also been featured in the Associated Press, National Journal, Huffington Post, ABC News, and Green Mountain Daily (Vermont). Working together, we’re making progress on this fundamental reform issue–and your help today will greatly help us keep the momentum going.

Thanks for helping to change Congress.
–Lawrence Lessig & Joe Trippi

December 19, 2008  ·  Lessig

Here’s the latest argument for CHANGE (v2). It makes a strong push for “Citizens’ funding of the Nation’s elections.” The idea is being discussed and voted on at

Please support the idea there if you can. I need about 500 279 179 votes to get the idea into round two.