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Political gridlock has doubled since the 1950s, and a recent poll shows public approval of Congress is just 16%–an all-time low for a midterm year. This week, a bipartisan commission made up of former state and federal officials, business and academic leaders is out with more than sixty recommendations for how to fix the political process. The commission calls for holding one national primary, instituting a five-day workweek for Congress and appointing independent redistricting commissions to prevent gerrymandering. But critics say the recommendations don’t go far enough to address serious, campaign finance problems. Guest host Susan Page and a panel discuss new bipartisan efforts to reduce government gridlock and the influence of big donors.
- Lawrence Lessig professor, Harvard Law School and director, Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. He has founded the Mayday PAC" in support of campaign finance reform.
- Mark McKinnon Republican strategist who served as chief media advisor to President George W. Bush
- Olympia Snowe senior fellow, Bipartisan Policy Center and former U.S. Senator (R-Maine)
- Daniel Glickman senior fellow, Bipartisan Policy Center; former secretary of agriculture under President Bill Clinton; former Democratic congressman, representing Kansas
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She'll be back next week. On Tuesday, a bipartisan commission lead by two former Senate majority leaders offered more than 60 recommendation on how to fix the American political process. The Bipartisan Policy Center called for Congress to work a five-day week and for a single national primary day.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThe report contained some recommendations on campaign finance, but critics say they didn't go far enough. Joining me in the studio to discuss bipartisan efforts to reduce government gridlock and reform money and politics, former Maine Senator Olympia Snowe. Thanks for being with us.
MS. OLYMPIA SNOWEThank you, Susan.
PAGEAnd Harvard Law School professor, Lawrence Lessig, thanks for joining us.
MR. LAWRENCE LESSIGThank you.
PAGEAnd joining us from Aspen, Colorado, former agriculture secretary and Kansas congressman, Dan Glickman. Congressman Glickman, thanks for being with us.
MR. DANIEL GLICKMANThank you, Susan.
PAGEWe're going to invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, before we start, in the interest of full disclosure, the Bipartisan Policy Commission hosted four national town halls over the last 18 months in the process of developing this report.
PAGEUSA Today was a co-sponsor of those and I helped moderate them. I was proud to do that. But we didn't have any part in this report or we're not part of the recommendations that the commission is making. So Senator Snowe, we're getting ready to talk about fostering bipartisan cooperation and the news came yesterday that House Speaker John Boehner says the House is going to sue the president for what he calls abuse of his executive authority. What did you think about that?
SNOWEWell, I think it's a stunning illustration of the degree to which the relationship has, unfortunately, you know, degenerated between the president congressional leadership and between, you know, both branches of government. I've often said that both branches cannot, you know, perform as parallel universes, they have to work in concert on critical issues.
SNOWEBut so much is not happening. The president, unfortunately, taking, you know, so much exercising of -- so much unilateral authority to pursue policies. On the other hand, Congress isn't addressing any of these issues. And so ultimately, we've reached, you know, a standstill and resulted in the gridlock that we're facing today.
SNOWESo I think it's an unfortunate dimension 'cause I think it's only going to exacerbate the tensions and the divide that exists between the two branches of government and particularly at this moment in time where the polarization is at the highest levels we have seen in more than a century.
PAGESecretary Glickman, you served both in the executive branch in the cabinet and also in the Congress. Is this a serious effort on the part of the House, do you think, to curtail executive authority or is something else at work?
GLICKMANWell, I think it's a serious partisan effort. There's always tension between the White House and Congress, but, you know, and our government, we have separation of powers and the executive branch and the legislative branch are coequal branches and they have to work together and if they don't work together, it's just a prescription for paralysis and this kind of conflict.
GLICKMANAnd, you know, I think there's plenty of blame to share around. One of the recommendations in our report is that the president should address a joint caucus of the Congress at least twice a year and should meet with congressional leadership on a regular basis. The level of trust between Congress and the president has, frankly, reached all-time lows.
GLICKMANThere's a lot of blame to share, but we think we have some prescriptions to try to help this.
PAGEYou know, Senator Snowe, some of these recommendations in the report by the Commission on Political Reform don't sound revolutionary. In fact, I think people would be stunned that they don't already happen, That the president should meet with congressional leaders at least once a month, that Congress ought to work a five-day week.
PAGEI mean, some of these things, did it really take 18 months and a big process to decide that they should do this?
SNOWEIt is, again, another dimension of the disintegration of, you know, legislating governance in Washington in between the both branches of government. You know, these meetings should be occurring, you know, with regularity between not only the branches of government, but among congressional leaders. I mean, the president should be holding regular, you know, bipartisan leadership meetings, which, obviously, we recommend in this report.
SNOWEBut these are basic, you know, operations of conduction legislative business and the nations' business that's not transpiring in Washington, which is a marked departure, you know, from, you know, previous Congresses and previous presidents.
PAGEWe want to talk about some of the specific recommendations, including changing the way congressional districts are drawn and encouraging young people to devote a year of service to their community. But Dan Glickman, let's talk, first, about some recommendations that were not made and those would relate to campaign finance. You do make some recommendations relating to campaign finance, but understand that this was an area where it was very difficult to reach consensus on some of the broader ideas.
GLICKMANYeah, I think that, you know, with the 25 or so commissioners of different political perspectives, the issues were just too complex for us to reach, like, a statutory type recommendations. We did recommend, you know, a few things, including the total disclosure of all contributions into accounts. Right now, we have dark pools and a lot of money where we don't know who's giving that money and we think there should be total disclosure and we think that these leadership PACs should be curtailed and at least should be much more fully disclosed than they are.
GLICKMANBut we thought that the issue is really serious. Olympia and I actually agreed on this, that we would've liked to have gone further with much tougher campaign law restrictions. But we've proposed a national commission on basically on money and politics to address it much more thoroughly and there's a lot more work to do in this area.
PAGEProfessor Lessig, what did you think about the report and campaign finance is an area in which you have some particular expertise. How about that area and what the commission has recommended.
LESSIGWell, I think one part of the report or I'd actually say the beginning and the end, the part that talks about changes in the state process and the part that talks about citizenship is fantastic. But reading the report, it does feel a little bit like "Hamlet" without the prince because there is the central problem, I think, in the way Washington works right now tied to the way money is raised for campaigns.
LESSIGAnd the dramatic change that we've seen since the mid 1990s and the amount of time that members spend raising money and the amount of time they spend out of Washington raising money, in the change in the norms of the way committees get allocated as a function of money, all of these changes are dramatic and many commentators have pointed to these as the core cause of much of the dysfunction in the way that Washington works.
LESSIGSo to write a report about how we're going to address this question of getting Congress to function without addressing in a really direct and serious way the way we raise money, it seems to me, misses the most important part.
PAGESenator Snowe, what do you think about that?
SNOWEWell, I understand what Professor Lessig is mentioning, but on the other hand, we didn't ignore it. We recognize the realities of what we could address right now short of a constitutional amendment and bringing both sides together, having both political parties vested in trying to change the system and obviously leveraging the public pressure.
SNOWEI was part of campaign finance reforms of the McCain-Feingold. In fact, it was provision that was struck down in Citizens United. You know, it took us the better part of a decade just to enact that legislation. You can imagine, it's extremely contentious and controversial. And I agree, there's too much money in the system. We have to address it fundamentally.
SNOWEWe would've gone further, but obviously we had to reach a consensus. And one of the proposals is to create a national commission above and beyond the transparency 'cause I think transparency is important. Disclosure's important. And I would not minimize or underestimate that proposal that we're saying that groups, you know, that are financing advertising and campaigns have to disclose their donors.
SNOWERight now, they do remain in the shadows and that accountability is going to be critically important as we go forward.
LESSIGRight. But and I agree, disclosure's incredibly important. But what's striking is that the history of thinking about reform over the last 30 years has been all about how do we restrict people's participation in the system. And this report, too, talks about how to worry about restricting superPAC money and money that's coming in from the inside.
LESSIGBut the most important innovations that are talked about right now and in changing the way we fund elections are by supporting new proposals for small dollar funding. Now there's a brief paragraph that says it's great that there's more small dollar funding, but the really important thing to put out into the center of people's debates are proposals like John Sarbanes' idea for matching grants to fund elections or the Republican proposals for vouchers to make small dollar funded elections so that we move from the current system where literally tiny fraction of the 1 percent, about .05 percent of America are the relevant funders of congressional campaigns.
LESSIGWe move from that system to a system where the broad swath of us are funding campaigns. That's got to be the future of this type of reform.
SNOWEBut it requires congressional action. So we're not dismissing those options. We're saying that that obviously has to be decided by Congress in the final analysis, but we're certainly not underestimating or minimizing the role that small donors can play in that process and we recognize that very specifically in the report.
LESSIGRight. You do address it and that was very important. But this does not require a constitutional change to make this happen. This could happen through a statute. So I think the opportunity that I was disappointed was not here is that we could put out in front of the American people this alternative so they can begin to imagine a different way to fund elections so that they didn't believe, as they do now believe, that the impact, the power of this tiny slice of the 1 percent is overwhelming in the influence of what Congress does.
SNOWEWell, I'd still like to address the issue of disclosure because I think you're underestimating the value of disclosure by these organizations that are spending millions and millions of dollars.
PAGEBut Secretary Glickman, if you couldn't get this commission of people who are really devoted to try to reach a bipartisan consensus, if they couldn't reach a broader consensus, what are the odds that real action on campaign finance realistically is going to be able to be enacted.
GLICKMANI think Professor Lessig is correct, that this is a monumentally serious problem and we did not neglect it, as Olympia just talked about. It's a problem that involves a lot of vested interests in constituencies, many of which don't want any change. And so as a matter of how you change, we think that some sort of leveraging a national commission pointed by the president, bringing in the private sector, a lot of activist communities around the country and the parties themselves to drill down and finding solutions like small dollar contributions or perhaps restricting members raising money during the time that the Congress is in session.
GLICKMANThere are a lot of ideas out there. This is highly important stuff.
PAGEWe're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we're joined by phone from Aspen, Colo. by Dan Glickman. He's a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, former secretary of agriculture in the Clinton Administration and former Democratic congressman from Kansas. And in the studio with me, Olympia Snowe, former Republican senator from Maine. She's also a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. And Lawrence Lessig, professor of law and director of the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. He's the author of "Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress and a Plan to Stop It."
PAGESenator Snowe, we're talking about the report released this week by the Bipartisan Policy Center on how to address some of the dysfunction we see in government now. One of the recommendations that I know you have talked about a lot, is changing the way congressional district lines are drawn. What do you think that would make such a difference?
SNOWEBecause we have so few competitive seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. And regrettably the lines have been gerrymandered consistently where the number has really diminished, you know, in recent -- in the last -- from the last reapportionment. So I think that this would go a long ways towards, you know, making up these homogenous political districts that are firmly ensconced in the hands of one party or another. And ultimately developing more fair and impartial process for...
PAGEWe have a caller, Bill, who agrees with you. He writes, "Isn't the elephant in the room gerrymandering not campaign finance," which really is the bigger problem?
LESSIGSo certainly gerrymandering's a big problem. But if we increase the number of competitive districts -- this report's very good at mapping out how the number of competitive districts has fallen so dramatically -- but if we increased it without changing the way we fund elections, we will have only increased the power of this tiny fraction who are actually funding elections right now. So I think we've got to figure out how to do both things at the same time.
LESSIGThese were recommendations about changing the way districts are drawn are very important and exactly right. But in addition to these we have to recognize -- well, let's argue about which elephant is in the room, the bigger elephant that's standing right in the middle of the room. You know, a system or member spend 30 to 70 percent of their time raising money to get their party back into power to get back into congress themselves. And that, it seems to me, is the source as many have pointed to as a serious dysfunction on the way congress is going to work.
PAGESecretary Glickman, another report in this recommendation deals with setting an expectation that young people, people 18 to 28 years old will devote a year of their lives to either the Peace Corp, the military, a nonprofit organization, some kind of community service. How realistic is that, do you think, that without mandating national service you can create an expectation that young people will do this?
GLICKMANI think it's realistic. And, you know, former General Stanley McChrystal and John Bridgeland, who's on our commission, have a separate project called the Franklin Project to encourage all American youth, the young people -- actually all Americans to engage in some sort of public service during their life. We need to rebuilt the greatest generation that Tom Brokaw writes about in terms of the World War II generation that came back to this country and built America.
GLICKMANWe need to restore citizenship in this country and engage citizens who give of themselves a period of time help to make the country a much better place. And, you know, the Peace Corp. and other places have way more applicants than they have ability to serve. And so we think this is part of the whole equation and engaged citizenry is part of making this country much healthier again.
PAGELet's take a caller, let our listeners join our conversation. Stephanie is calling us from Silver Spring, Md. Hi, Stephanie.
STEPHANIEHi. Thank you, Susan. My question is for the group. I hear there's some desire for the citizenry to be involved, or at least emotionally invested in the happenings in Congress. But I have to say I'm wondering whether any of you can speak to any suggestions that have been made in the report around the filibuster. What's speaking for myself is what makes me turn off, you know, change the channel because that seems to be the real -- that's the tool that seems to be the implement of inaction.
PAGEAll right. Stephanie, thanks so much for your call. Senator Snowe, what did the commission recommend when it comes to the filibuster?
SNOWEWell, significantly particularly because two of the co-chairs were former Senate Majority leaders, both Senator Daschle and Senator Lott, reached agreement on the idea of not allowing a filibuster on the motion to proceed to actually bring up the bill for debate. But rather the filibusters could occur on any of the amendments or the bill itself. It would allow for two hours of debate on the motion to proceed. So, you know, we remove that juggernaut in the Senate process that hasn't inhibited debate.
SNOWEOn the other hand, it also guarantees a minimum of ten amendments that would be offered alternatively between both sides. And that's also critical to the process and to the traditions of the Senate. Because heretofore it's one of the major issues right now currently underway in the Senate from both sides is that amendments are not allowed to be offered on the floor of the Senate.
SNOWEIt's very difficult for the Senate to operate and function as the highest deliberative body in the world if you can't engage in the kind of debate that is afforded by offering of amendments. It's how you reconcile the differences and bring both sides together. So that has to change and so those two proposals were included in the report that will link those two, which I think could make a profound difference.
PAGESecretary Glickman, the report also had an interesting idea setting a national primary day, a kind of super Tuesday in which all the congressional primaries would be held. We've, of course, had a string of them the last couple Tuesdays and then a couple Tuesdays to come. What would be the advantage to doing that, having a single congressional primary day?
GLICKMANVoter turnout in primaries are notoriously low. In many places it's less than 10 percent. And in the primaries, as Olympia talked about in terms of the homogeneity of congressional districts, the primaries are where the ultimate victor is determined. And, you know, 10 percent of the people are the ones who are deciding these elections. So we believe that a national primary for congress would enhance the knowledge of -- for the American people to know what elections are happening. It will raise consciousness to a much higher level. And we strongly encourage much higher voting turnout in primaries. That was one of our strongest recommendations. And this is one way to do it.
PAGEYou know, of course, that requires states to act, right. The nation -- I mean, I guess congress could try to -- legislation to do that but unlikely that would happen. So how do you convince states to do that? States are pretty protective of their election processes. Do you think they might agree to this, Senator Snowe?
SNOWEWell, hopefully with public pressure and engaging, you know, the involvement of the public and our citizens in this process. And that's why we're encouraging them to go to our website BipartisanPolicy.org, join the Citizens for Political Reform Movement to create a catalyst for engaging the public and to drive the change in the reforms. You know, initiate petition drives, collect signatures, get it on the ballot, a citizens referenda if the legislatures and the governors refuse to do it.
SNOWEWe have to lay the groundwork now because reapportionment occurs again in 2020. And we're going to be solidifying this kind of political entrenchment on both sides where it fails to yield the kind of competiveness that we need to see in these primaries. Rather than producing candidates in the far right and the far left who refuse to work across the political aisle. It's more ideologically based than it is talking about various ideas and competing for the more centrist voters overall.
PAGESecretary Glickman, here's an email we've gotten from Nomi in Indiana. This person writes, "Let's not play the everyone-deserves-blame-equally game. Republican members of congress were from the very beginning of President Obama's first term to block anything he wanted to do and they've stuck to their guns on that one. He has consistently offered compromise and centrism only to be met with Republicans changing the terms of agreement and pulling even further to the right." What do you think about that?
GLICKMANWell, you know, I mean, as an old Democratic partisan I have probably some sympathy to that but the problem is it begs the question, that thinking is not going to help us produce consensus, which gets results in the congress. And, you know, the American people believe that both sides are part of the problem. And, you know, so the fact of the matter is is that the -- and the president and congress both have to work and neither have performed perfectly in this era. Although I happen to believe that congress is deserving more of the blame right now. So while I think it's good for a partisan to say the other side is responsible for all the blame, I don't think that necessarily helps us reach any solutions.
PAGEProfessor Lessig, you're nodding your head.
LESSIGYeah, and I applaud former Congressman Secretary Glickman because I think this is exactly the way we need to learn to speak. Yes, we have our own partisan view but we have to recognize both sides have played a significant part of the problem. And -- but I also think it's striking the difference between positions would seem obvious to people outside of the beltway and positions that seem harder to people inside the beltway.
LESSIGI was struck by Stephanie's question about the filibuster because though the report I think makes great progress in talking about how to modify the filibuster, I think most people outside of Washington are a little bit baffled about why we would have an institution that has such a super majority entity rule inside it. The standard rule -- explanation that's given is, well, you know, it protects the right of minorities. But I think African Americans remember that it was -- for 82 years not a single civil rights bill could get past the United States Congress because of the filibuster in the United States Senate.
LESSIGSo I think it's an important question that we outside the beltway need to be pushing on Washington, which is exactly what role should there be to give people the ability to block in the way, not just in the way it blocks legislation, but also in the way it hampers any administration from its ability to fill offices necessary to govern.
SNOWEBut the United States Senate was designed not to be a majority rule institution. It's to build consensus and accommodation enforcing that consensus and accommodation by virtue of the fact that you do have 60 votes. That it's being abused, that's another issue and that obviously has to be addressed, which the report does I think in a very significant way. I don't think either side -- I know both the former majority leaders have approached the current leaders of the Senate with these proposals and I don't think that they were overwhelmingly embraced.
SNOWEBut the point is that we need to work to make sure that these rules are adopted the first day in the United States and in the U.S. House of Representatives on some of the changes and modifications. Because that's the day in which they consider and they adopt those rules. And we certainly want to make that part of the change in the rules package. Because otherwise, we'll have another two years with the kind of problems we're facing today.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I know that Secretary Glickman has to leave us now. Thank you so much for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
GLICKMANThank you. It's a pleasure to be with you today.
PAGEAnd we're welcoming now Mark McKinnon. He's a Republican strategist who served as chief media advisor to President George W. Bush. And he joins us from Crested Butte, Colorado. Thanks for being with us, Mark.
MR. MARK MCKINNONSure. Good morning.
PAGENow I know that you and Larry Lessig have worked together on something called the May Day PAC. What is that?
MCKINNONWell, it's, I think, a brilliant idea that Professor Lessig has come up with which is a way to put a block and David slingshot against the Goliath of money and politics. It's a very simple idea which is to see if we can raise a million dollars from donors across the country who want to address this topic. And we know that 90 percent of people in America do. They think it's a problem. They just don't think that the congress will do anything about it. And this is a way the voters can be mobilized and engaged.
MCKINNONSo we raised the million dollars and we got another million dollars of matching funding for that. That was the first phase of the launch. The second phase is to raise 5 million over the next -- over this month in the next couple of weeks and match that. And so we'll have a total of $12 million, which we know from my experience and talking to other consultants and people in politics is an adequate amount of money for us to engage this fall in a campaign to pick five congressional seats, five races -- or Senate races and take on this issue and show that we can mobilize voters on this issue and be effective on this issue and have a real impact. So that's the plan and we've crossed the first threshold and we're setting on the second one now.
PAGESo Larry Lessig, how do you choose the five races you're going to focus on? What will you be looking for?
LESSIGWell, what we want to do is to convince people, again inside the beltway this is an issue that matters to American voters, and so we want to pick races where when we win people inside the beltway say, oh my gosh, that guy lost because of money and politics. Or this woman was elected because of money and politics. And so that they begin to recognize that the American people really do care to fix this problem.
LESSIGMark pointed to this amazing poll that we did where we found 96 percent of Americans -- 96 percent believe the influence of money and politics needs to be reduced, think it's an important issue. But 91 percent don't believe it's possible. They don't believe there's anything that can be done. So they're resigned -- this is the politics of resignation -- they're resigned to the current system.
LESSIGBut what we found is if you can crack that resignation, give people a sense there's actually hope, there's actually something you could do, they rally in an incredible way. And so we just put up a website that said, we want to run this pilot. We want to run this pilot in five districts. Will you give us your money? And within two weeks we had 13,000 people who had contributed money to try to organize to help us to make it so that we can make this an issue and begin to put it right in the center of the political debate.
LESSIGOur objective, and if we are successful this year I think we have a big step towards that, is to run a really massive campaign in 2016 then to win a congress committed to fundamental reform. There's already more than 150 members of the House who have committed to it but congress committed to fundamental reform so that the next president can come in and deal with a congress who is not constantly worried about what their funders are thinking, but instead are worried about what the voters in their district are thinking.
PAGEBut Mark, I still don't understand. You choose a race where there's been opposed someone who's been taking a very hard line against campaign finance reform or what are you trying to demonstrate in these races? Because of course while Americans agree that money is too powerful in politics, that is not typically the issue on which they vote. They usually vote on pocketbook issues or other issues that are very close to their lives. So Mark, what will you try to do in these races?
MCKINNONWell, increasingly, Susan, they're realizing that money and politics infects all those issues that they care about. And they're seeing now that, for example, 132 people in the last election cycle gave 60 percent of all the PAC money that was spent in the last cycle, which was almost a half a billion dollars. That's not democracy. What that means is their elected represented spent all their time thinking and begging for money from 132 people out of all the people in America. They know that that disrupts the system.
MCKINNONIncreasingly conservatives and Republicans like Mike Lee are talking about crony capitalism. We don't have a free market of ideas anymore. And if you look at the legislation that gets passed, it's not the legislation that people care about or the issues that they care about. The issues that get passed are the issue that those 132 people care about. And it's a big farm and all the typical big money of interest that the people know about.
MCKINNONSo if we go into these races and either take out somebody who's against the reforms or support somebody who's for them, we're going to demonstrate that this is an issue that people care about and that we can articulate the message in a way that people understand.
PAGENow this superPAC is made possible by the Citizens United decision. Is that right?
LESSIGWell, technically not Citizens United. Technically a case called Speech Now but right, it's a super PAC which means it's an independent political action committee that can take unlimited contributions. And we actually think that's a mistake. We should not have independent political action committees that can take unlimited contributions. I think there should be -- people should be free to create independent political action committees.
LESSIGBut this feature of being able to take unlimited contributions is what produces exactly what Mark was talking about., that these PACs, these independent super PACs try to solicit very, very large contributions from a small number of people. And everybody's now worrying about dancing in a way to incentivize people to contribute in a way that helps their campaign.
PAGEMark McKinnon, thanks so much for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MCKINNONThank you, Susan.
PAGEMark McKinnon, he's a Republican strategist. He worked for President George W. Bush. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation and we'll take your phone calls. You can reach our toll free number, 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email at email@example.com. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page, of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio, Lawrence Lessig, professor of law at Harvard. He's the author of "Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress -- And a Plan to Stop It." And Olympia Snowe, she's the former Republican senator from Maine, a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Here's an email we've gotten from Jason, who's writing us from your home state, Senator Snowe, from Maine.
PAGEHe writes, "Can the participants cite any evidence that the politicians who employ the most money during campaigns get more votes or is this just an assumption? Didn't Eric Cantor outspend his challenger to a ridiculous level only to lose?" Larry Lessig, that's a reference, of course, to that upset in the Virginia Republican Primary this month. Does money matter so much if Eric Cantor can be defeated?
LESSIGYeah, so sometimes money doesn't matter. Eric Cantor, Governor Brown in California, there are lots of particular examples of where it doesn't matter. But overwhelmingly the incumbents or the ones who win are the people who are out spending. And whether that's true or not, I mean, it turns out to be true more than 89 percent of the time, but whether it's true or not, members believe it. So that they behave, so that they try to raise as much money as they possibly can.
LESSIGAnd that points to the problem that I'm concerned with, which is not how much money is spent, but how that money is raised. Because if you spend all your time raising money from such a tiny, tiny slice of America, you can't help but be affected by those people you're raising money from.
PAGELet's go to the phones and let our listeners have their say. Let's talk to David. He's calling us from Hedgesville, W.Va.
PAGEDavid, you're on the air. Hi.
DAVIDHow you doing? The Congressional gridlock in certain instances is a good thing because with all this money in politics a lot of things that Congress is trying to push are not the will of the people. But I just wanted to ask if the group had considered trying campaign finance limits again, for Congress to pass a law emphasizing the fact that there's no limit on signed ads.
DAVIDIn other words, if I wanted to put in an ad in the Bangor paper that I thought Senator Snowe should be reelected -- even though she's retired now -- I could put that in under my name and I could put it in as many papers as I wanted. And I could buy TV ads, but I'd have to say this David and this is why I want her to do it.
DAVIDAnd if they wanted to even allow groups, like these PACs, they would have to have the, you know, top 10 people listed right at the bottom of the ad of the top 10 donors for that PAC so we would know who's putting this money into the politics and maybe we can embarrass them out of doing that.
PAGEDavid, thanks for your call. You might -- you are risk Senator Snowe of being reelected against your will under that circumstance.
SNOWEI appreciate that, though.
LESSIGWorse things have happened.
PAGESo just the idea of more disclosure, that's something you've talked about.
SNOWERight. It's, yeah -- no. And it -- I cannot overemphasize the value of disclosure. Because I think it's absolutely right. You know, if you're disclosing the donors it does, you know, have a pronounced impact. In fact, when this has been discussed in the past in the United States Congress about requiring those organizations to to disclose their donors, there's been a huge uproar. There's been major resistance and opposition to the whole notion of transparency. But transparency drives accountability.
SNOWEAnd that's what you would have with many of these organizations that are underwriting these advertisements in the shadows. I mean, for example, you know, they have Citizens for Good, you know, for a Great America. Well, who are the Citizens for a Great America? We don't know. So that's what's important. You know, ironically, my provision in Citizens United that was struck down was -- went to the heart of these advertising -- these ads, making a distinction between issue advocacy and electioneering ads.
SNOWEAnd not to, you know, prevent an organization from, you know, expressing their views, but if they identify someone who's a candidate 60 days before an election, then they would have to, you know, disclose and be restricted like political action committees. And unfortunately, that's what was struck down by the Supreme Court.
LESSIGYeah, disclosure is necessary. But, you know, it also had a debilitating effect on the public because, as the public has seen more clearly, precisely how much money and from whom is going into the political system, that leads many to think, well, that's even more reason for me not to be involved in the political system. So I think we need to tie disclosure to actual changes in the way that we're funding elections so that we can scare people away from certain kinds of contributions perhaps that make it hard for people to believe that they're actually doing what they say they want to do.
LESSIGBut also, give candidates an alternative. You can't always say no to politicians. You actually have to give politicians an option, a way of doing it in a better way, so that the public has a reason to believe them when they say that they believe in something.
PAGEHere's an email we got from Kaylynn, in California. This person writes, "Just to give you one viewpoint of how the behavior of Congress has affected this 34-year-old American who follows politics very closely, I stopped voting five years ago. I feel my vote is not only pointless, but an insult to me and my fellow citizens. There feels to be a tipping point on the horizon that will come from a majority of the population that will force the issue in a major way." Do you think this is true? Are there lots of people like Kaylynn?
LESSIGYeah, and so "Rock the Vote," which, you know, turned out the largest number of young voters in 2008 and easily that number accounts for Obama's election. In 2010, found that a significant number of their new voters are not going to vote. And I asked them why. They polled them. And the number one reason by far, 2 to 1 of the second highest reason was no matter who wins corporate interests will still have too much power and prevent real change.
LESSIGSo they look at it and they say, you want us to get involved, but what reason is there to be involved if these influences have the power that they do? Now, many people look at this and they say, well, you know, that's just people's belief. But in the largest study, empirical study in the history of political science of actual policy decisions -- released this year from Princeton, Ben Page and Martin Gilens -- they found that the average voter had no independent -- statistically demonstrable independent influence on the decisions of Congress, as compared to the economic elite or business interests.
LESSIGSo that when someone, like this woman from California, says, I feel it's an insult, what reason is there for me to be involved, there's actually pretty good evidence that there isn't much reason for you to be involved if they're not responding to your views. And they're not going to respond to their views if they spend all of your time, again, raising from this tiny, tiny fraction of the 1 percent.
PAGESenator Snowe, I know you spend a lot of time speaking, especially on college campuses. Is this the attitude you hear?
SNOWEAbsolutely. Yeah, the people feel that their vote won't matter, why bother to participate in the system when you have elected officials who, you know, aren't inclined to listen, aren't performing, aren't addressing the issues that face everyday Americans in their lives. That contributed to my own frustration and my departure in leaving the Senate and not seeking reelection for a fourth term.
SNOWEBecause it was clear to me that we weren't going to address the fundamental issues that mattered to the average American, to turn this economy around, create jobs, you know, handle the budgetary issues and drive economic growth in the aftermath of the worst, you know, recession since the Great Depression. And none of those issues were at the forefront of the legislative agenda, and haven't been since. I mean, so you can see why the American -- the average person is totally removed because there is a wide chasm between those who are governing and those who are governed.
SNOWEAnd that's what we've got to change. And, you know, all of this contributes, whether it's the money, the failure of Congress to address these fundamental issues because of the polarization and my-way-or-the-highway approach, the scorched-earth approach. So ultimately it results in the kind of alienation, the detachment and the despair that so many Americans are feeling.
LESSIGBut this is why I think it's important to see these issues together. Right? So polarization is an incredibly important problem, but we need to see the way in which the current environment for fundraising actually exacerbates polarization. You know, we live in a time when it's a permanent campaign. There's no time to govern and then campaign. We're constantly campaigning. We're constantly raising money to campaign.
LESSIGAnd what both parties have discovered is that if they spend their time criticizing the other side, it's easier to raise money, than if you spend your time saying what's so great about you. Chris Murphy, the youngest senator from Connecticut, says that when he sends an email out criticizing the Republicans, he raises three times the amount of money that he raises when he sends an email out praising what he, as a Democrat, wants to do. And this is true the other way around.
LESSIGSo the business model of fundraising depends on teaching us to hate each other. And they succeed, you know, this, of course, goes into the media, too. Lots of the media -- not NPR, perhaps. But, you know, MSNBC and Fox News have a business model that profits to the extent they can build this kind of antagonism between both sides. And to the extent that the political system contributes to that. I think we should stand back and say why do we want to create that kind of incentive? We could be changing the way we fund elections and removing the need to create that kind of incentive and that could only help.
SNOWEIt goes to the heart of the issue, though, and what elected officials are doing today. And that is appealing, you know, to the hardline, ideological base of their party to insure that they don't have primary opposition. That's why they send out those emails, appealing to the base. I mean, it's more and more about the hardline political base, than it is about the overall voter. And that's a problem for this country right now.
SNOWEIt's a problem within the Congress. And I can see that. I mean, once in a while you'd say there'd be votes for the base. But then it became everything about the base, to the exclusion of anyone else or to any of the policies that matter.
PAGEYou know, we have…
SNOWEIt became about the next elections driving -- yes -- obviously, to raise the money, but it's also driving the positions and leveraging, you know, one's position for the next election, to gain advantage.
PAGEOne of the recommendations from the Bipartisan Policy Commission is to have more open primaries, primaries in which Independents or even people from the other party are allowed to vote. And we saw an example just this week of the power of an open primary. You had this election in -- primary election for Republicans in Mississippi where the farther right challenger had won the first primary, but not by a margin that prevented a runoff.
PAGEAnd then you had Thad Cochran actually appeal to Democratic voters, especially black voters to come and vote in the Republican primary and they saved his hide. Is that a good thing?
LESSIGOf course it's a good thing. But I think, you know, we have to recognize the ongoing incentives ordinarily operating here. So Senator Snowe is absolutely right. The people appeal to the base. But they appeal to the base, in part, because the louder they scream to the base, the more responsive the base is in doing what they're trying to do, raise their money. And the people in the middle, the sensible people in the middle, are just turned off by this kind of rhetoric. And therefore, they don't become relevant because they don't send in the money.
LESSIGSo there are exceptions to how this works and there are some times we can see how it -- we can pull it back. But what we need to recognize is we can't wait for Superman or for exceptions to solve the problem. We have to create a system that produces incentives for governing to work. Not to work for the left or to work for the right. To work for whomever wins, but the point is there has to be a system that gives people an opportunity to govern and not to constantly worry about the fight that they have to engage in to get into a majority position again.
PAGENow, Senator Snowe, some analysts and some of listeners blame the rise of the Tea Party for really exacerbating the political divide, the unwillingness to compromise. Do you think that's a fair analysis?
SNOWEWell, I don't think it's exclusionary. I mean, I don't think it was solely their, you know, they're responsible for the divisions and the partisanship, as giving rise on both sides. But, clearly, you know, that has been exacerbated, you know, by the unyielding positions of so many within the Tea Party, driving the agenda in the U.S. House of Representatives, that contribute to the shutdown that occurred last fall for 16 days, which was a calamity. That was not a, you know, certainly a winning strategy to tie the defunding of the Affordable Care Act, you know, to the funding of government.
SNOWEAnd so that's an unfortunate dimension of what has occurred. But now, you know, the polarization, the partisanship is now, I think, overtaken both sides of the political aisle, because hence the way each of these institutions are working, whether it's the House or the Senate.
LESSIGRight. But what's interesting about the Tea Party is if you look at the grass roots of the Tea Party, there's actually a potential for common ground, I think, with, you know, more liberal part of the political spectrum. You look at, you know, in the Eric Cantor race, you know, number two on Brad's list of issues that he talked about was crony capitalism. He was charging Eric Cantor with becoming a crony capitalist. Well, crony capitalist is the word that, you know, people on the right use to talk about what we on the -- we on the other side talk about as the corruption -- corrupting influence of money in politics. Right?
LESSIGAnd when we have meetings with Tea Party people and we talk about this underlying problem and the way our government works, there is unanimous agreement that we have got to find a way to change this. And that's what I think the potential for this change is.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to the phones. We'll talk to Mark. He'll calling us from St. Petersburg, Fla. Mark, thanks for holding on.
MARKNo problem. Thank you very much. And good morning.
MARKI have several possibilities to discuss. First, we need -- not that it'll happen -- but we need Constitutional amendments. First one saying that corporations are not people, only people are people. We need a Constitutional amendment stating that redistricting boundaries must be drawn by a party neutral, one person-one vote computer program that takes all the gerrymandering out of it. We have to have a Constitutional amendment saying that nobody outside of a candidate's district can contribute to the -- to that candidate's campaign, because that steals voice in franchise from the voters in the district.
MARKAnd we need a lobby law that says lobbyists can only meet with Congresspersons in their office, in duly noted public meetings that can be attended by anybody, any public person who walks in the door.
PAGEAll right. Mark, that's a lot of Constitutional amendments to consider. Larry Lessig, what do you think?
LESSIGYeah, I think the, you know, a lot of people have views about how the Constitution needs to be changed here. But here's the reality, to get a Constitutional amendment out of the United States Congress requires 67 United States senators to vote for it. Now, you know, there is not one Republican senator who has cosponsored any of the proposed amendments to deal with the problems created by Citizens United.
LESSIGAnd to get it out of the United States Senate, means you'd have to find a dozen Republican senators to join that kind of vote. And, you know, my view is, it's just not going to happen tomorrow or next year or -- unless we invade Canada -- any time in the near future. Now, that doesn't mean we shouldn't be fighting for reform. I think there's lots of reform that can be done without a Constitutional amendment. I think the commission's report is wonderful in pointing to all the reforms that can happen without Constitutional amendment.
LESSIGBut the one that, you know, we've been focused on is changing the way you fund elections. A simple statute could do that. And so when the Mayday PAC -- which is Mayday.us, if you're looking for it on the web -- the Mayday PAC is pushing for candidates who don't take the easy step in saying, yeah, I want to amend the Constitution, because we all know that's almost impossible to imagine happening tomorrow. But take the hard step and say, I want to convince the American voters that there's a different way to fund elections and that would address a significant part of this problem.
PAGESenator Snowe, what's realistic to think about the recommendations that the commission has made and the chances that they're actually going to see the light of day?
SNOWEWell, we're going to drive it, you know, through our own advocacy in working with members on the Hill. And, in fact, more than 50 meetings have already occurred with organizations, but also with the public. And that's why we're driving -- we're urging them to look at our website and to determine how they can, you know, initiate some of these efforts and to become involved and to be engaged and to speak up.
SNOWEBecause, obviously, it's a small fragment of the population that's determining the future of this country, who's electing our officials, because of minimal voter turnout in these primaries that are determining ultimately, you know, those serve in both the House and the Senate. So people have to become involved. They have to speak up and demand accountability in elections, but also beyond, during the course of the year.
PAGESenator Olympia Snowe, Professor Lawrence Lessig, thanks so much for being with us this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show."
PAGEI'm Susan Page, of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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