Lawrence Lessig explains how Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton get money in politics wrong

The Harvard professor says candidates need to change the way they talk about the issue.

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—Lawrence Lessig / Wikimedia Commons

Lawrence Lessig has spoken out for some time now on the corrupting influence of money in politics, as he puts it. The Harvard Law School professor even launched a short-lived presidential campaign to push the issue.

The role of money in politics has gotten some attention in the 2016 campaign, from Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton’s recent contentious debate to Donald Trump’s own admission of using the system to his benefit. But Lessig told Boston.com that we need to change some assumptions when it comes to meaningful reform.

The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Obviously the Supreme Court has been in the news lately. Bernie Sanders has said if he were president, he would only appoint a Supreme Court justice who supported repealing Citizens United? Do you agree with that as a strategy?

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I think Citizens United, which made possible super PACs, is a terrible decision. But I think the primary strategy to deal with the problem of the corrupting influence of money in our political system has got to be to change how campaigns are funded.

Both Clinton and Sanders have made that part of their platform. Neither of them have elevated that issue in a way so that even people understand that it is possible. My fear is we’re missing an extraordinary opportunity to fix the problem by focusing too obsessively on Citizens United.

What then would be the best way to address the influence of money in politics?

Small-dollar public funding, or citizen funding. One way to do that is vouchers, which is the solution I think has the most radical potential for empowering a wider range of people in the political process.

But I also support the idea of matching funds, like [Maryland Rep.] John Sarbanes’ primary mechanism by his Government By The People Act and the Fair Elections Now Act. Those are all ways to increase the number of people funding congressional campaigns. And congressional campaigns are the focus.

I think too much of this presidential race has been framed around the question: ‘Which candidate is the least bought?’ That’s a completely misleading framing, because that’s actually pretty irrelevant.

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The question is whether Congress is bought. Barack Obama didn’t pass on the public option because insurance companies had bought him off. He didn’t fail to get climate change legislation passed because he sold out to the coal companies. Those failures explain Congress’s dependence on money and unless we address that, we aren’t going to get anything significant done.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has made campaign finance reform one of the central focuses of his 2016 campaign. —Marc Piscotty / Getty Images

Clinton and Sanders have both supported small-donor matching systems in their campaign finance reform plans. To what degree do their plans come to addressing the ultimate goal as you see it?

I think either of those would be fine, but the problem with Clinton is she literally never talks about it. And the problem with Sanders is that when he talks about it, he talks about it as something that we have to ‘move toward’ in ‘the long term.’

My response is, ‘What are you going to do in the short term, Senator?’ Because you can’t get anything done — certainly, the kind of things he’s talking about doing — until you change the power of money in Washington. And you will only do that if you change the way elections are funded. So this is not something for the long term; it’s something right now.

On the anniversary of Citizens United, Elizabeth Warren gave a speech in the Senate and this was her point. Everybody was ringing their hands over Citizens United — and no doubt, it’s a terrible decision and we should think about amending the Constitution and certainly should have justices who would think about fixing its problems — but we could be doing something right this minute. She gave a list of six things that could be done immediately and the first on that list was changing the way elections for Congress were funded.

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I think that’s the priority that candidates for president have got to give it, because if they don’t, when they get to Washington and show up at the White House, there will be no mandate. There will be no sufficient mandate to overcome the enormous political power that’d be rallied against that type of change.

If it isn’t something we move toward in the long term, how do we get meaningful reform in the short term?

Passing thosebills. Seventy-two percent of voters indicate support for small-dollar citizen funding of elections. And yet, I think probably 72 percent don’t recognize that either Sanders or Clinton is talking about it. Surfacing and pushing them to talk about it is the critical next step.

This action Kai Newkirk from 99Rise is organizing called Democracy Spring, which beginning April 2 will launch a march from Philadelphia to Washington and sit in at the Capitol to demand that Congress act on four pieces of legislation. The primary of them is the Government By The People Act. That action, which has close to 100 organizations cooperating and participating in it, is directed at putting into the center of this debate the one thing that politicians want to keep out, which is changing the way elections are funded.

There are some states, like Arizona and Maine, that have enacted versions of publicly financed elections and studies “didn’t find a huge effect on the views of the people elected.’’ Is that fair to say?

No, I don’t think that’s fair to say. Nobody serious is saying ‘Clean up election money and you turn the population into a bunch of Democrats or progressives.’ The claim is that you clean up election money and you tighten the connection between the populace and what their representatives do.

The reason that in Arizona people like John McCain don’t like public funding is that they think it’s ruined Arizona politics. It turns out once you remove the country club Republicans from controlling Arizona politics, Arizona is a pretty conservative place. That’s not because of public funding; that’s because the citizens of Arizona are pretty conservative.

I’m not a conservative. I want to beat conservatives, but I want to beat conservatives fairly by arguing and convincing people to follow progressive ideas, not by corrupting the way money influences the political process.

Another skepticism of the actual influence of campaign finance reform is that money in politics matters mostly only for small issues, but doesn’t actually push the needle much on major legislation when the public is already paying attention. I mean, look at Jeb Bush’s campaign. [The super PAC supporting the former Florida governor raised more than $100 million in 2015. Bush dropped out last Saturday.]

Well, you’ve got to distinguish between the money mattering to the voter and the money mattering to the candidate. And the criticism at least that I’ve been making — and the criticism Donald Trump is making — is that the money is corrupting the candidate, not that it’s corrupting the voter.

So I’ve never thought that money would necessarily buy you votes and if you’ve got a weak candidate, you could spend all the money in the world; you’re not going to buy votes with it.

But when that candidate, especially in the context of Congress, spends 30 to 70 percent of their time raising money, there’s no doubt that it’s affecting that candidate. It’s affecting what that candidate is willing to talk about, what issues that candidate is looking to push.

In the 2014 election, there was a wonderful memo written for [the 2014 Democratic Senate candidate from Georgia] Michelle Nunn, leaked by somebody, and it was basically saying you have to spend 80 percent of your time raising money. Literally 80 percent, except for the last month you can spend 50 percent of your time raising money.

But more strikingly the memo then went through all the groups that it’s possible for her to imagine raising money from. Not necessarily tied to her politics. She was supposed to be a progressive Democrat, but the Chamber of Commerce was on this list. And then the particular way she had to talk about issues in order to raise money from those group.

I have no doubt that in the process of raising money, because she’s human, she internalizes these realities of what she has to say, what she can’t say. Then she and every politician develops this sixth sense, a constant awareness of how what they do might affect their ability to raise money.

That’s the way money matters. Or that’s the way it’s almost certain to matter. It’s not almost certain to matter in guaranteeing somebody is going to get elected.

So given that money affects the way candidates talk about issues. How would this election look or sound different if had achieved citizen-funded elections?

I don’t know it would matter much at the presidential level. Bernie would have less of an argument against Hillary because they both would be publicly funded. But it’s certainly going to matter at the level of Congress.

If you step back and ask what is making it impossible for our government to function, it’s the failed institution at the core of our democracy, and this is Congress. And that failed institution will only be fixed if we address the core problems that ail it, and those core problems include the corrupt way we fund our campaigns.

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