University News

Law professors debate campaign finance reform

Janus Forum lecture raises questions about corruption, influence of money on politics

Staff Writer
Thursday, September 18, 2014

Lawrence Lessig, professor of law at Harvard, argues for broadening public involvement in the financing of political campaigns.

Super PACs, access to government officials and donation caps emerged as critical points of discussion at a Janus Forum debate on campaign finance Wednesday evening.

The event featured Lawrence Lessig, professor of law at Harvard, and Eugene Volokh, professor of law at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of the blog “The Volokh Conspiracy.”

Lessig opened the conversation by questioning “what corruption means in deciding the scope of campaign finance reform.” He differentiated between the type of corruption that misshapes the public’s view and the kind that “distorts the political process.”

“I think the Supreme Court was right in Citizens United v. (Federal Election Commission) to say it is not the concern of the government to worry about how someone’s speech affects the public. … Inequality or distortion of speech is not corruption,” Lessig said.

The problem, therefore, is the amount of time members of Congress and other elected officials spend — between 30 to 70 percent of their tenure — speaking to a small number of fundraisers and focusing on reelection rather than attending to day-to-day business, he said. Government officials’ dependency on relevant funders, who constitute only 0.05 percent of the U.S. population, is extremely problematic, he said.

As a solution, Lessig proposed implementing rules that do not stop individuals from exercising their rights to free speech by donating to political campaigns or influencing public opinion. He said he favors instituting a system in which government officials spend less time raising funds and draw from a wider range of Americans.

One model of implementing this type of arrangement is creating a voucher system in which all Americans mail a sum of money to the U.S. Treasury and then receive a voucher that they can give to any candidate, Lessig said. Under such a system, the candidate would promise to accept only vouchers and contributions under $100, so that each candidate would get a sufficient amount of money from a large number of Americans, he added.

Volokh, a consistent critic of campaign finance reform, argued in response that “restricting the spending of money on the exercise of a right is a burden on the exercise of the right.” He equated the access given to campaign fundraisers and contributors with that gained by celebrities, newspapers or interest groups. Though the danger of corruption due to certain proportions of access is pressing, it is not pressing enough to justify reducing people’s ability to speak, he added.

Volokh said he views campaign finance through the lens of the “free press” clause in the Bill of Rights, arguing that Americans and news outlets alike spend money all the time on spreading their ideas, slanting stories and editorializing. The same standard should be applied to campaign financers spending money to support a certain candidate and his or her ideology, he said.

The legitimacy of super PACs marked a topic of contention between the two speakers. Lessig argued that super PACs, which were not directly created by the Supreme Court, increase the system’s corruption because they have the ability to influence government officials, not just public opinion. “Congress can limit contributions to independent PACs, even if they cannot and should not limit expenditures of the PACs,” he said.

Conversely, Volokh argued that individuals can, and often must, pool money and resources in order to have a more effective voice — often in the form of a super PAC.

In the question-and-answer session that followed, undergraduates raised questions about the problems that arise when corporations or wealthy individuals are able to advance their interests to the public and squash weaker voices.

Lessig addressed this concern in his presentation,  arguing, “I see it more like the freedom that the Nazis have to march in Skokie — we despise what they’re doing, but a robust system of free speech require that they are able to do it.”

Zach Ingber ’15, a Herald opinions columnist, said he was concerned that the “voucher system would put political power in the hands of people who don’t have an interest in politics.”

Lessig said in response that it would be necessary to monitor the voucher system to prevent a phenomenon of “voucher buying.”

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  1. Dolly Cinders says:

    Any attempt at serious reform would be opposed by lobbyists and their clients, who have a huge interest in the current system. And giving more power to the masses, as suggested in this article, would do little to alter the power retained by those special interests.

    We don’t have to wait for anyone to fix the campaign finance system. We can consider candidates without special interests backing them. And we can refuse to vote for any candidate who accepts that kind of backing. That takes the power from the source of the money, bypassing the need for reform.

    For me, the most frustrating aspect of this is how easily voters could defeat the legalized corruption of campaign finance, if voters acted collectively across party lines. Voters can look at less publicized candidates. Voters can reject immediately any candidate who takes any form of influence buying. Voters can support candidates who publicly warn that they will give no beneficial treatment to donors of PACs that independently advertise on their behalf. By doing those things, voters could render that influence money powerless.

    Most voters would not vote for a candidate who had been convicted of bribery while in public office. It wouldn’t matter how “electable” he/she is or what his/her policy positions are. So why vote for any candidate who accepts legal bribes in the form of special interest money?

    It’s satisfying to deny consent to the existing system by voting that way, and that’s a bonus reason to do this.

    Voters in caucuses and primary elections could insist on voting for a candidate who is free of special interests’ influence, if their party has one available. There are some politicians who take very little money from any sources except individuals.

    Because no special-interest-influence-free candidate wins at the conventions of either major party, my voting strategy requires choosing neither Democrats nor Republicans. Other parties’ candidates still appear on ballots. It does not matter which candidate, because that candidate will not win the election this time around. It’s OK to vote for a goofball or crackpot. I would rather vote for a random minor party candidate I don’t believe in than give consent to my abuse by voting for a bought candidate.

    If more people start protest-voting for those minor party weirdos you see on ballots, then sensible independent candidates will notice that and try running in various elections. We can vote for those people. As a nice bonus, this will pressure the two main political parties to adapt to voter preferences more than big campaign donors would like.

    That third party strategy has a risk of splitting the liberal vote between two candidates (as happened with Ralph Nader in 2000) or the conservative vote between two candidates (as happened with Ross Perot in 1992). The best outsider candidate would be a non-weird centrist who can steal votes equally from both parties; if that centrist belonged to a party, the party would have to refuse all special interest money.

  2. Interesting debate in a vacuum. You would think that campaign financing exists nowhere else in the world but the US. Living in Germany and France, and currently in Japan, it may be helpful to see how other countries do it, and what are the pluses and minuses of their financial support for politics. Es waere eine neue Erlebnis, et nous profiterons de l’experience. Keiko-desu, ne?

    I find Brown debates generally devoid of interest or understanding of events and solutions outside the borders of RI, much less outside US borders.

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