Edward Lopez on Republic, Lost

From Edward Lopez’s just posted review of Lawrence Lessig’s Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congressand a Game Plan to Stop It:

This book advances the above core premise to argue that campaign finance has recently fastened a lethal grip of control over the polity, such that voters and representatives have increasingly come to perceive themselves, and each other, as doing very poor jobs. Neither money in politics nor congressional corruption is new, of course. Indeed, Lessig repeatedly praises today’s Congress for being less venal than perhaps any in history, and the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act deserves credit for that. Yet a newer, less direct form of corruption has become ubiquitous, causing each Member to become distracted from constituent preferences and distorted into serving special interests instead.

Today’s corruption is different because it is embodied in what Lessig calls the influence economy, a concept that is intricately developed in the book’s early chapters. Again, Congress may not be anywhere nearly as venal as in the Gilded Age, but today’s Congress is just as corrupted by money. To see this, we have to appreciate that today’s Washington culture eschews and even scoffs at quid-pro-quo corruption (such as money for votes or money for government contracts). Instead, today’s Washington has come to prefer a more nuanced medium of exchange: connections. Namely, connections to people who will donate and raise large sums of individual contributions. Under the grip of the influence economy, members of Congress are essentially required to chase big money if they want to get reelected. And if they’re constantly chasing big money, then they’re not doing their jobs, and the republic corrodes.

Everything about the influence economy is legal; there can be no arrests for carrying out its ordinary business. However, being legal doesn’t make it any less corrupt. In chapter 9, a foundation of the book’s overall argument, Lessig fixes our baseline of an ideally functioning republic. It is the constitutionally intended function of Congress to serve as a deliberative body, one that talks about and therefore arrives at policies that would serve the public interest. This is how the American constitutional framers intended it, and this is the standard against which Lessig faithfully judges it. In particular, it is the House’s intended job as a representative body to be “dependent upon the People alone.” In thusly quoting Federalist #52, Lessig emphasizes that this deliberative, representative view in turn implies that the Congress, in particular the House is intended to be “answerable to, relying upon, [and] controlled by…nothing or no one else” (p.128). Lessig challenges the reader to take “alone” seriously, and to recognize it literally. By answering to lobbyists and moneyed interests instead of constituents, members of Congress are distracted from doing their jobs because they must spend so much time fundraising rather than deliberating. The representative function of Congress is thereby distorted from serving the public interest. It is commandeered to shape the political agenda so as to benefit connected, moneyed interests.