Lessig Distances Himself from Represent.Us on “Corruption” and Campaign Finance Reform

Regular readers know of my concerns about how Represent.Us is trying to both sell its campaign finance reform plan as “anti-corruption” and confusion over whether the group means old style corruption or Lessig’s “dependence corruption” (which I see as a a kind of equality argument–though Larry doesn’t).

Today Larry posted this piece in the Daily Beast, which includes the following:

Represent.US is an activist organization fighting corruption in Washington. It has created (with the help of Trevor Potter, a Republican, and former Chairman of the FEC, Jack Abramoff,  a Republican and former lobbyist, and me, a former Republican, with the word “former” strongly emphasized) the American Anti-Corruption Act, perhaps the most ambitious reform proposal to address the “corruption” in Washington in a hundred years.

But what is the “corruption” that the AA Act means to reform? Though at times, Represent.US has followed the McCain line—attacking the system of corruption that has evolved within DC—in its most recent work, the group has become positively McConnell-esque—except that unlike McConnell, Represent.US actually believes there is widespread corruption in the quid pro quo sense, while McConnell (and I for that matter) believe there is not.

Congressman Jim Himes (D-CT) is Represent.US’s latest target. This former Goldman Sachs partner has frustrated many progressives by working hard to deregulate Wall Street. In a completely tasteless online ad sponsored by Represent.US, a fake lobbyist approaches Himes at an event carrying a bag full of cash. He opens his conversation by thanking Himes for “taking the lead” on the Wall Street deregulation bills. Himes responds that “Well, I don’t hear that often.” But then the fake lobbyist “accidentally” spills wads of cash onto the floor. Himes, appropriately enough, walks away from the fake lobbyist without saying a word. Security quickly escorts the fake lobbyist out of the event.

This ad is wrong, because its conception of corruption is wrong. Jim Himes is not “corrupt” in the sense that McConnell means. He works within a corrupt system, in the sense that McCain tried to explain. Within that system, members must fund their campaigns in ways that certainly destroys the integrity of the system. But this isn’t the cash-for-favors culture of the Gilded Age. The “system,” as McCain had explained, certainly destroys the “integrity” of Congress. Quoting Webster’s, McCain rightly argues that “corruption” means “the impairment of integrity, virtue or moral principle.” But you don’t need to allege quid pro quo bribery to prove that the “integrity” of Congress has been impaired. What you need are a pair of eyes, or a paycheck that doesn’t depend upon the survival of the existing system.

Now unclear to me: is McCainian “institutional corruption” the same as “dependence corruption”/equality or is it something else entirely?


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