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During a March 5 talk at the Kellogg School, legal expert Lawrence Lessig criticized the “extraordinary economy of influence” built by lobbyists in Washington D.C.

Lawrence Lessig

A solution to the ‘democracy crisis’

Law professor Lawrence Lessig encourages Kellogg students to advocate for campaign finance reform

By Amy Trang

3/11/2009 - An addiction to money is brewing in Congress. And that habit has been fueling the public’s mistrust of politicians.

Lawrence Lessig
At a March 5 talk at the Kellogg School, legal expert Lawrence Lessig called for stringent new regulations on campaign financing.

“It’s not that money is evil, but a simple recognition that money poisons trust,” Lessig said. “To restore trust is to remove the dependency that erodes trust in these institutions.”

The Stanford Law School professor said he believes that today’s politicians have more integrity than their predecessors, but that the public’s opinion of them is colored by the fact that they receive money from lobbyists and special interest groups.

An expert on cyber law and founder of Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society, Lessig has turned his attention toward reforming campaign finance. He and a colleague have launched a Web site, www.change-congress.org, to offer a solution to the money problem. The site asks campaign donors to pledge not to donate to any federal candidate unless he or she supports legislation to ensure that congressional elections are funded by citizens rather than by special interests. That change could come about in two ways, Lessig says: Money could be raised directly from citizens, up to a donation cap; or funds could be funneled through the U.S. Treasury.

Most members of Congress spend 30 to 70 percent of their time working to raise money to be reelected. Lessig said these politicians have developed a “sixth sense” with regard to how their actions and votes will affect their fund-raising efforts, and that in turn influences their stances on issues such as global warming, “They are being guided by something other than reason,” Lessig said. “There is a dependency that leads them to answers that are bad.”

As a result, he said, citizens no longer expect their elected officials to solve the most pressing issues of the day. “People have lost the sense of using democracy as a tool for public problems,” Lessig said. “They turn to Starbucks instead of the government to solve these problems.”

Lobbyists have been the “pushers” of this addiction, Lessig said. He noted that the number of lobbyists has nearly doubled since the Clinton era.

“Lobbyists have built an extraordinary economy of influence in D.C.” Lessig said. “No one has any interest in stopping this model.”

The passivity of the most privileged and educated has exacerbated this democracy crisis, Lessig said. He encouraged the Kellogg audience to push for change in the political process.

“If it’s not us, then who will it be?” Lessig said. “We have the responsibility to do something.”

Lessig’s speech was the latest in the Kellogg Distinguished Lecture Series and was sponsored by the Kellogg School Office of the Dean. The initiative brings preeminent thought leaders from academia, journalism and business to the school to address key issues and leadership challenges confronting managers today.