Referring to a recent Senate resolution that would limit the influence of big money in politics by amending the Constitution to give Congress and the states the power to limit both contributions to political campaigns and independent political expenditures, Lawrence Lessig’s November 16 op-ed in the New York Times describes it as
… just the latest verse in a very tired song. Once again, the answer to the problem of campaign finance is to “just say no.” Limit contributions. Limit independent expenditures. Limit soft money donations. No, no, no.
Lessig argues that attempts to deal with the big-money problem by imposing restrictions haven’t worked and will never work:
“Just say no” reforms alone have failed. They will always fail in a world where campaigns cost money, and the bulk of that money is raised from less than 1 percent of us.
Instead, Lessig advocates a new form of public campaign funding, which might be called the “First Fifty” system. Arguing that “almost every voter pays at least $50 in some form of federal taxes,” he proposes that each voter receive a $50 rebate as a “democracy voucher.”
That voucher could then be given to any candidate for Congress who agreed to one simple condition: the only money that candidate would accept to finance his or her campaign would be either “democracy vouchers” or contributions from citizens capped at $100. No PAC money. No $2,500 checks. Small contributions only.
Would these vouchers amount to enough to make a difference?
Fifty dollars a voter is real money: more than $6 billion an election cycle. (The total raised in 2010: $1.86 billion.)
How about the familiar argument that public funding of political campaigns would use my tax money to pay for speech with which I disagree?
[Democracy vouchers are] my money, or your money, used to support the speech that we believe: this is not a public financing system that forces some to subsidize the speech of others.
Is First Fifty an effective counter to the influence of big money?
And because a campaign would have to raise its funds from the very many, it could weaken the power of the very few to demand costly kickbacks for their contributions.
The op-ed ends with “a version of the Occupy Wall Street slogan that 99 percent of Americans could actually agree upon”:
Campaigns financed by the 1 percent will never earn the confidence of the 99 percent, or appear to any of us as anything other than corrupt. We, all of us, must demand an end to that corruption.
Given that Lessig is a professor of law at Harvard, one supposes that this proposal is Constitutionally OK. The challenge will be to build enough demand among the 99% to overcome what will be fierce resistance from the 1%.