We are now one year into the Obama presidency, and it is already clear that this administration is an opportunity missed: Not because it is too conservative or too liberal, but because it is too conventional. President Obama has given up the rhetoric of his early campaign, which promised to “fundamentally change the way Washington works.”
Obama once decried allowing “lobbyists and campaign contributions to rig the system.” The reason he was running, he said, was “to challenge that system.” Without a fight, he said, fundamental change “will keep getting blocked by the defenders of the status quo.”
But this administration has not taken up that fight. Instead, it has played a political game no different from the one George W. Bush or Bill Clinton played. And as it stands now, Obama will leave the presidency with Washington intact and the movement he inspired betrayed.
That movement needs new leadership. On the right and the left, there is an unstoppable recognition that our government has failed. But both sides need to understand the source of its failure.
At the center of our government lies a bankrupt institution: Congress. Not financially bankrupt, at least not yet, but politically bankrupt. Increasingly, faith in Congress has collapsed. Just 21% of Americans approve of how Congress does its job. Why? Because Congress has developed a pathological dependence on campaign cash. The U.S. Congress has become the Fundraising Congress.
This corruption is not hidden. Consider the story Robert Kaiser tells in his fantastic book, “So Damn Much Money,” about former Democratic Sen. John C. Stennis of Mississippi. Stennis, no choirboy himself, was urged to solicit campaign funds from military contractors for his 1982 reelection bid while he was chairman of the Armed Services Committee. “Would that be proper?” Stennis asked. “I hold life and death over those companies. I don’t think it would be proper for me to take money from them.”
Is such a norm even imaginable today? Compare Stennis with Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who, when controlling healthcare legislation in the Senate, gladly opened his campaign chest to more than $4 million in contributions from the healthcare and insurance industries. Or Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who took millions from insurance interests and then opposed the “public option” for healthcare, despite significant support for it in their states. The list is endless; the practice open and notorious.
Members of Congress insist that this money has no effect. But if money doesn’t affect results, then what could possibly explain the failures of our government?
From the perspective of what the people want, the Fundraising Congress is misfiring in every direction. That is either because Congress is filled with idiots, or because Congress depends on something other than policy sense. In my view, Congress is not filled with idiots.
As someone who has known Barack Obama for almost 20 years, I would have bet my career that he understood this. If you had told me in 2008 that Obama expected to radically remake the American economy without first radically changing this corrupted machinery of government, I would not have believed it.
Yet, a year into this administration, reforming Congress is nowhere on the administration’s radar.
There was a way Obama might have governed differently. It would have been risky, but in his first speech to the nation, he could have built on the rhetoric at the core of his campaign. On Jan. 20, 2009, Obama could have said:
“America has spoken. It has demanded fundamental change. I commit to work with Congress to produce it. But if we fail, or more precisely, if Congress allows the special interests that control it to block change, then it will be time to remake Congress. Not by throwing out the Democrats or the Republicans, but by throwing out both. If this Congress fails to deliver change, then we will change Congress.”
Had he framed his administration in these terms, the failure to implement his agenda would not be the failure of Obama to woo Republicans. It would have been what America was already primed to believe: a failure of this corrupted institution.
We can hope that Obama recognizes these missteps. But as we’ve seen, hope will get us only so far.
What’s needed now is a citizens movement to stop the Fundraising Congress. We need to demand change, including publicly-funded elections, a seven-year ban on lobbying for any member of Congress and amendments to the Constitution to assure that reform can survive the Supreme Court of John G. Roberts Jr.
Nor can one exaggerate the need for this reform. Our government is, as Paul Krugman put it, “ominously dysfunctional” at a time when the world desperately needs at least competence. Global warming, pandemic disease, a crashing economy -- these are not problems we can leave to distracted souls. We are at one of those rare moments when a nation must remake itself, to restore its government to its high ideals and the potential of its people.
Lawrence Lessig, a professor of law at Harvard Law School, is co-founder of the nonprofit group Change Congress. A longer version of this article appears in the Nation and can be read at www.thenation.com.