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Lawrence Lessig Headshot

Plain Sight Corruption: Senator Burr and Rape Victims

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Jamie Leigh Jones is an American who was gang raped by her co-workers while working for a defense contractor in Iraq. Her employer tried to cover up the rape and prevent her from filing charges in court – by forcing her to use a private arbitrator chosen by the company. They had the right to insist upon an arbitrator, the company maintained, because a clause in their contract with Jones required it.

Last month, Senator Al Franken (D-MN) offered an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill to change this. His bill would forbid the Defense Department from entering into contracts with companies that force their employes to arbitrate claims of rape.

Thirty Republican Senators opposed Franken's amendment. Many of them had received large contributions from defense contractors and the Chamber of Commerce, both keen to lower the costs of “disputes,” apparently regardless of who it hurts.

Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) is one of the senators who voted with his special interest contributors and against victims such as Jamie Leigh Jones. He is also one of the senators, as we have now shown with a poll that we commissioned in North Carolina, who voted against the views of the overwhelming majority of his own constituents. 74% of North Carolinians support the Franken Amendment — including a majority of both Republicans and Democrats. 

So why did Burr vote against the views of his constituents?

When we told those participating in our commissioned poll that Burr had taken over $700,000 from defense contractors and the Chamber of Commerce, a majority then believed that they knew why he did what he did. 47% believed he voted the way he voted "because of the money" compared with just 34% who believed he voted the way he did because he thought it was right. A clear majority, moreover, believed the contributions "hurt his judgment" (52%). Add the facts about money, and for most, the puzzle of Burr's behavior became clear. 

This is the point we have made again and again and again. People can quibble about whether money caused a representative to vote one way or another. Some may believe they would have voted that way regardless of a contribution. Others might insist that the representative can separate the influence of money from the question of what's right.

But this way of framing the issue of influence simply misses the point. It imagines that the only relevant question of corruption is whether the soul of some senator has been stolen. 

Corrupted souls, however, is not the only — or even the most important — kind of corruption. Forget whether Burr's soul was corrupted because of the money he took. Even if it wasn't, his behavior has the obvious and undeniable effect of weakening — or we might say, "corrupting" — trust in Congress. The more people see congressmen acting against their constituents but for their contributors, the more people believe "money buys results" in Congress. In North Carolina alone, those cynics outnumber the believers 5 to 1 (67% to 14%).

Congress has got to wake up to the fact that most Americans don't trust it. The vast majority believe the institution has no integrity; that it is an elaborate cover for influence paid for through campaign cash. And Congress must recognize that its own behavior has produced this view. The spectacle of cash pouring into campaign pockets destroys the public's trust in that institution. Congress is responsible for that spectacle. 

We've launched a campaign to hold Senator Burr accountable — not because he voted in a way that most of us disagree with, but because he voted against the interest of his own constituents while for the interests of significant contributors. Because, in other words, he voted in a way that will simply confirm what most Americans already believe: that money buys results in Congress.

Burr's behavior is a kind of corruption — call it, corruption in plain sight. And we will continue to attack representatives who behave in this way, at least until they commit themselves irrevocably to ending this system of corruption by co-sponsoring Citizen Funded Elections.

Sign our petition to Senator Burr here. More importantly, help us push the only reform that can begin to undo the extraordinary cynicism that now marks America's view of this, its central institution of democracy: Congress.

In a system of Citizen Funded Elections, voting against the views of your constituents is a profile in courage. In the system we now have, when that vote is also a vote in favor of your contributors, it is to most a simple confirmation of how deeply corrupt this government is.