My review of Lawrence Lessig’s new book Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It is out in the American Prospect. I didn’t totally buy Lessig’s proposed solution, but I went into the book a serious campaign finance reform skeptic, and he’s convinced me that the naïve view that there’s a huge corruption problem in Washington is in fact correct.
Lessig takes on the model of lobbying as “legislative subsidy” developed by political scientist Richard Hall and economist Alan Deardorff as an alternative to the naive lobbying-as-bribe model. Legislators come to Washington passionate about several issues. Quickly, though, they come to depend on the economy of influence for help in advancing an agenda. They need the policy expertise, connections, public-relations machine, and all the rest that lobbyists can offer. Since this legislative subsidy is not uniformly available, the people’s representatives find themselves devoting more of their time to those aspects of their agenda that moneyed interests also support. No one is bribed, but the political process is corrupted.
At the same time, Lessig argues, fund-raising is not only a way of obtaining campaign cash but a method for members of Congress to live beyond their means. Congressional political action committees engage in massive spending on dinners, parties, retreats at fancy resorts, and other fundraising events with donors. These events enable members to treat themselves to vacations and high-priced meals they couldn’t otherwise afford. Abjuring the money hustle would, in practice, entail a psychologically difficult decline in the average member’s standard of living in a way that would lead him to shy away from challenging his donors’ interests even if the direct electoral stakes were small.