Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Lawrence Lessig Headshot

Institutional Integrity: Citizens United and the Path to a Better Democracy

Posted: Updated:

Whatever else one believes about the Supreme Court's decision striking down limits on corporate speech in the context of political campaigns, there's one thing no credible commentator could assert: That money bought this result. We can disagree with the Court's view of the Framers (and I do); we can criticize its application of stare decisis (as any honest lawyer should); and we can stand dumbfounded by its tone-deaf understanding of the nature of corruption (as anyone living in the real world of politics must). But we cannot say that somehow, the influence of money has produced this extraordinary result. The Court jealously guards its own institutional integrity. Two hundred years of careful doctrine, defining the economy of influence under which it does its work, has produced an institution whose decisions we can disagree with strongly, but whose integrity we can't fairly doubt. Maybe liberal or conservative politics sometimes gets too much mixed with constitutional law. But money is no where even close.

Thursday's decision by the Supreme Court denies to Congress the same institutional integrity enjoyed by the Court. The vast majority of Americans already believe that money buys results in Congress. This Court's decision will only make that worse. The Wall Street bailouts, the caving to insurance and pharmaceutical interests in health care reform, the ability of coal companies to stop Congress from addressing even profoundly important questions like global warming leads most to the view that it isn't reason or even constituent politics that determines what Congress does or doesn't do. It is instead the siren of campaign funding. Now a second siren walks onto that stage, promising, ever so indirectly, more campaign support from corporate treasuries. Who could doubt that this will further distract Members of Congress from what their constituents want? And who could believe it won't make Americans even more cynical about what Congress does?

The institutional integrity of Congress is already at a historical low. Less than one quarter of Americans have faith in this institution. Three times that have faith in the Supreme Court. If there's such a thing as political bankruptcy, then Congress is bankrupt. More Americans likely supported the British Crown at the time of the revolution than support our Congress today.

Yet despite the Court's decision, there is still one possible way that Congress could redeem itself. Following the examples of Arizona, Maine and Connecticut, Congress could enact a voluntary, opt-in system of Citizen Funded Elections that would give Members the chance to run for office without this integrity-destroying dependency on private campaign cash. One bill currently introduced in Congress would give candidates a grubstake to fund their campaigns, plus the freedom to raise unlimited amounts of money in $100 contributions or less. In exchange, Members would give up the bundling of large contributions by the buyers of influence.

This change alone might not be enough to restore faith in this failing institution. The rumblings in favor of a constitutional amendment, or even a convention to consider a range of amendments, are growing. The fears that private money will overwhelm even an adequately funded public system are fair.

But fear of failure is no reason not to act, quickly and forcefully, to restore the integrity that this central institution of American democracy has lost. For whatever else the Framers were trying to do, they were not trying to establish a comedy at the core of their democracy. Nor the tragedy that this Congress has become.

Visit change-congress.org to learn more.

Register To Vote