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Will the states intervene to get our democracy back?

ASK THIS | February 21, 2010

Congress needs to turn to public financing to restore its integrity and it’s not likely to do that, writes Lawrence Lessig in the Nation. But something needs to be done, he writes, and the answer may lie in the long, difficult workings of a constitutional convention.

By Morton Mintz

Is there a single piece of legislation that would strike a strong blow at the pervasive corruption of Congress by moneyed interests and the corrosive public cynicism inevitably fostered by that corruption? There is: a pending proposal for public financing of federal elections.
So the next time President Obama holds one of his too-infrequent press conferences, would a reporter please ask him where he stands on this issue? Of course there's no reason why a citizen or a lawmaker shouldn't put the question at one of Obama's many televised public appearances.
(In emails over a period of several days, I asked the White House press office if the question had been put to the president, but no response was forthcoming.)
"At the center of our government lies a bankrupt institution: Congress," Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig wrote recently in "How to Get Our Democracy Back," an article in The Nation. "Just 45 percent of Americans have 'trust and confidence' in Congress; just 25 percent approve of how Congress is handling its job," wrote Lessig, shown at right. "A higher percentage of Americans likely supported the British Crown at the time of the Revolution than support our Congress today.
“The source of America's cynicism is not hard to find....We may want peace and prosperity, but most would settle for simple integrity. Yet the single attribute least attributed to Congress, at least in the minds of the vast majority of Americans, is just that: integrity. And this is because most believe our Congress is a simple pretense. That rather than being, as our framers promised, an institution 'dependent on the People,' the institution has developed a pathological dependence on campaign cash. The US Congress has become the Fundraising Congress....
"This is corruption....a corruption of the faith Americans have in this core institution of our democracy. The vast majority of Americans believe money buys results in Congress (88 percent in a recent California poll)....The democracy is feigned. A feigned democracy breeds cynicism. Cynicism leads to disengagement. Disengagement leaves the fox guarding the henhouse."
Candidate Obama "promised to 'challenge the broken system in Washington' and to 'fundamentally change the way Washington works,'" Lessig continued. "[B]y ignoring what he promised, and by doing what he attacked..., Obama will leave the presidency...with Washington essentially intact and the movement he inspired betrayed."
Lessig, a co-founder of the non-profit group Change Congress, urges reform that "restores institutional integrity" and "rekindles a reason for America to believe in the central institution of its democracy." For starters, he endorses citizen-funded elections. That's "an idea proposed by a Republican (Teddy Roosevelt) a century ago," and embodied in "the current bill sponsored in the House by [Connecticut] Democrat John Larson and [North Carolina] Republican Walter Jones, in the Senate by Democrats Dick Durbin [Illinois] and Arlen Specter [Pennsylvania].
But could this reform "survive the Roberts Court"? Lessig doubts it. That's why he wants a constitutional convention that would amend the Constitution to create a Congress "with institutional independence."
Congress won't call for such a convention. But two-thirds of the states could bring one into being.

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