A Reply to Congressman Conyers

04/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Lawrence Lessig Law professor, activist, candidate in the Democratic Primary for President

Mr. Conyers says I "cross the line." He says I label his motivations for introducing this bill as "corrupt," that I accuse him of "shilling," and that I "dismiss" his bill as nothing more than a "money for influence scheme." On the basis of this "one piece of legislation," he says I have waved away "forty years of fighting against special interests." He insists that he has "earned a bit more of the benefit of the doubt." And, "that there is far more to the 'open access' story than [my] muckracking tale lets on." (Mike Eisen and my original posts are here and here. My blog post is here.)

First, as to substance: As others have shown without doubt, there is absolutely no "more to the 'open access' story" than my and Mike Eisen's criticism let on. (See the rebuttals, especially here and here.) This bill is nothing more than a "publishers' protection act." It is an awful step backwards for science -- as 33 Nobel Prize winners, the current and former head of the NIH, the American Library Association, and the Alliance for Taxpayer Access have all said. And Mr. Conyers knows this. Practically the identical bill was introduced in the last Congress. Mr. Conyers' committee held hearings on that bill. The "open access" community rallied to demonstrate that this publishers' bill was bad for science. Even some of the cosponsors of the bill admitted the bill was flawed. Yet after that full and fair hearing on this flawed bill, like Jason in Friday the 13th, the bill returned -- unchanged, as if nothing in the hundreds of reasons for why this bill was flawed mattered to the sponsors.

Second, as to "corruption": There are corrupt Members in Congress -- fewer, I believe, than at any time in our history, but the Randy "Duke" Cunninghams or Ted "A Series of Tubes" Stevens mean there must be at least some. John Conyers is not one of that class -- and nothing in what I wrote said anything different. I neither accused him of "shilling" nor labeled his "motivations" as "corrupt." The word "shilling" appeared in a question, begged by the combination of a disproportionate contribution and sponsorship of a baseless law. The word "corrupt" described a system, not a Member. Conyers is not "corrupt." Neither are his motivations. He is instead an extraordinary representative, a hero to many of us, the last member of the Judiciary Committee to vote to impeach Nixon still sitting on that committee, and a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. He is an extraordinarily good soul, like the vast majority who choose to serve in government today.

But these good souls work in a corrupted system. For of course I believe that Congress is defined by a "money for influence scheme" -- as do thousands of others who have joined Change Congress's "donor strike," pledging not to give a penny more to candidates who don't support fundamentally reforming our corrupt campaign finance system. (Join here.) And who could believe any differently? Not a "scheme" in the crude sense that people are bribed, or that there's a quid pro quo, this money for that legislation. But in the very real sense that money buys access, and that Members -- some of whom spend between 30% and 70% of their time raising money to get back to Congress -- develop a finely honed sixth sense, constantly aware of how what they do might affect their ability to raise money.

Who could possibly think that this system doesn't corrupt what government does? Who could possibly believe it benign? The answer of course is no one -- not the least a Member like Mr. Conyers who has spent forty years watching an honorable institution dissolve into a cabal of overpaid telemarketers. Just think about it: While America is facing crises more severe than any in the past generation, many (and maybe most?) Members of Congress are spending most of their time raising money to get back to Congress. This is like firefighters who take a coffee break in the middle of rescuing a trapped child, or police officers who stop at Starbucks on the way to a robbery. What sane person can look at this system and not think something has gone fundamentally wrong?

It is time that Congress take responsibility for the cynicism this system has produced. It is not enough for good souls to insist on their goodness. A good soul must act to change a corrupted system.

Supporting citizens' funding of the Nation's elections -- as Mr. Conyers has -- is an important first step. That one change, I believe, would do more than any other to restore trustworthiness in Congress.

But that's not all you could do, Mr. Conyers. You have it within your power to remove any doubt about the reasons you have for sponsoring the legislation you sponsor: Stop accepting contributions from the interests your committee regulates. This was the principle of at least some committee chairmen in the past. It is practically unheard of today. But you could set an important example for others, and for America, about how an uncorrupted system of government might work. And you could do so without any risk to your own position -- because the product of your forty years of extraordinary work for the citizens of Michigan means that they'll return you to office whether or not you spend one dime on a reelection. Indeed, if you did this, I'd promise to come to Michigan and hand out leaflets for your campaign.

Until you do this, Mr. Conyers, don't lecture me about "crossing a line." For I intend to cross this line as often as I can, the outrage and scorn of Members of Congress notwithstanding. This is no time to play nice. And yours is just the first in a series of many such stories to follow -- targeting Republicans as well as Democrats, people who we agree with on substance as well as those we don't, always focusing on bad bills which make sense only if you follow the money.

Whether you're a Republican or Democrat, you can help us. Join our strike4change, refusing to support any candidate who doesn't support citizens' funding of the Nation's elections. (We have just crossed the $1m withheld mark). Or volunteer to help us track down more examples like this one.

We will take the heat from the elected elites. From you, we need just the support it will take to show enough that real change must happen -- now.


Lawrence Lessig and Michael Eisen: Is John Conyers Shilling for Special Interests?

Lawrence Lessig and Michael Eisen: John Conyers, It's Time to Speak Up

Rep. John Conyers: A Reply to Larry Lessig

Michael Eisen: John Conyers Tries [and Fails] to Explain His Opposition to Public Science Access