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Our Democracy No Longer Works and the Problem Is Congress

At the center of our government lies a bankrupt institution: Congress. The US Congress has become the Fundraising Congress.

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I am not saying this would have been easy. It wouldn't have. It would have been the most important constitutional struggle since the New Deal or the Civil War. It would have involved a fundamental remaking of the way Congress works. No one should minimize how hard that would have been. But if there was a president who could have done this, it was, in my view, Obama. No politician in almost a century has had the demonstrated capacity to inspire the imagination of a nation. He had us, all of us, and could have kept us had he kept the focus high.

Nor can one exaggerate the need for precisely this reform. We can't just putter along anymore. Our government is, as Paul Krugman put it, "ominously dysfunctional" just at a time when the world desperately needs at least competence. Global warming, pandemic disease, a crashing world economy: these are not problems we can leave to a litter of distracted souls. We are at one of those rare but critical moments when a nation must remake itself, to restore its government to its high ideals and to the potential of its people. Think of the brilliance of almost any bit of the private sector--from Hollywood, to Silicon Valley, to MIT, to the arts in New York or Nashville--and imagine a government that reflected just a fraction of that excellence. We cannot afford any less anymore.

What would the reform the Congress needs be? At its core, a change that restores institutional integrity. A change that rekindles a reason for America to believe in the central institution of its democracy by removing the dependency that now defines the Fundraising Congress. Two changes would make that removal complete. Achieving just one would have made Obama the most important president in a hundred years.

That one--and first--would be to enact an idea proposed by a Republican (Teddy Roosevelt) a century ago: citizen-funded elections. America won't believe in Congress, and Congress won't deliver on reform, whether from the right or the left, until Congress is no longer dependent upon conservative-with-a-small-c interests--meaning those in the hire of the status quo, keen to protect the status quo against change. So long as the norms support a system in which members sell out for the purpose of raising funds to get re-elected, citizens will continue to believe that money buys results in Congress. So long as citizens believe that, it will.

Citizen-funded elections could come in a number of forms. The most likely is the current bill sponsored in the House by Democrat John Larson and Republican Walter Jones, in the Senate by Democrats Dick Durbin and Arlen Specter. That bill is a hybrid between traditional public funding and small-dollar donations. Under this Fair Elections Now Act (which, by the way, is just about the dumbest moniker for the statute possible, at least if the sponsors hope to avoid Supreme Court invalidation), candidates could opt in to a system that would give them, after clearing certain hurdles, substantial resources to run a campaign. Candidates would also be free to raise as much money as they want in contributions maxed at $100 per citizen.

The only certain effect of this first change would be to make it difficult to believe that money buys any results in Congress. A second change would make that belief impossible: banning any member of Congress from working in any lobbying or consulting capacity in Washington for seven years after his or her term. Part of the economy of influence that corrupts our government today is that Capitol Hill has become, as Representative Jim Cooper put it, a "farm league for K Street." But K Street will lose interest after seven years, and fewer in Congress would think of their career the way my law students think about life after law school--six to eight years making around $180,000, and then doubling or tripling that as a partner, where "partnership" for members of Congress means a comfortable position on K Street.

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