As we all know by now, insurance giant AIG sparked national outrage by paying more than $165 million in executive bonuses after receiving a $170 billion taxpayer bailout.
What fewer people know is that AIG gave more than $9 million in campaign contributions to Congress -- making OpenSecrets.org's list of the Top 100 contributors of all time. AIG split its money evenly between those in both parties who could help them the most -- especially those on key congressional committees that the public relied on to regulate financial corporations.
The Number 1 lifetime recipient of AIG money? Senate Banking Chairman Chris Dodd, who received $281,000 (just edging out George W. Bush).
Will recouping $165 million solve this AIG problem? No. We need to solve the underlying problem of special interests investing millions of dollars in political campaigns to reap billions in rewards from taxpayers.
That's why Change Congress -- the reform group I founded with Joe Trippi -- launched a political "donor strike" this year. Thousands of Americans are pledging not to give congressional candidates a penny more until they support the bipartisan Durbin-Specter bill, which would replace special interest-funded congressional elections with "citizen-funded elections" -- a hybrid of public funding and Obama-style small donations.
Together, we have already withdrawn $1.1 million from politicians who aren't yet supporters of reform. Will you add your voice to the call for reform by joining the donor strike today?
The idea is clear: The power of small-dollar donors was proven in the 2008 election. But if politicians can count on small-dollar donations flooding in from loyal supporters, and the only variable in the equation is whether special interests will pony up, who will control how politicians vote in Washington?
We need to change that equation by forcing a choice: Congress can have our money or special interest money, but not both. The Change Congress donor strike forces that choice.
And if ever there were a time to do it, it's now. We need to create a system where, in the midst of national debates over how to regulate Wall Street, members of Congress are not doing "call time" to special interests, begging for $2,400 checks.
This reform would actually be very liberating for the many good souls in Washington who are trapped in an inherently corrupt system. (Chris Dodd took on the telecom interests by leading the charge against immunity for lawbreaking phone companies. Does he really want decades of credibility jeopardized by a system that forces him to beg for cash from AIG?)
Citizen-funded elections are also the essence of fiscal responsibility at a time of deep national debt. Studies show that the money saved in any one year by liberating Congress to slash special-interest handouts would finance over a half-century's worth of citizen-funded elections and save taxpayers billions on top of that.
Congress needs to step up and solve the underlying cause of this AIG mess. If you're willing to step up and pressure Congress to do that, please consider joining the Change Congress donor strike today.
Follow Lawrence Lessig on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lessig