By Helen White
A Harvard Law professor spoke on institutional corruption in Congress at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s Schofield Auditorium on Wednesday night, enlightening an audience of more than 300.
“At the core of our democracy is a hole,” Professor Lawrence Lessig said, “where the framers imagined there would be a Congress.”
Lessig called the institution of Congress “crippled and corrupted,” illustrating for his audience the fundamental problems with our current political system: voter inequality, gerrymandering, and money in politics.
According to Lessig, in the last election, 10 million Americans had to wait more than 30 minutes to vote. This, he said, leads to many members of the community not voting at all.
“If you’re a middle-class or upper-middle-class person with an iPhone and childcare, that might not be a terribly significant burden,” he said of the time it takes to vote. “But if you’re a working class person with kids at home who don’t have the opportunity for childcare, this is a poll tax that working America just can’t afford.”
Gerrymandering is another problem that our nation faces on the road to solving institutional corruption.
“We’ve created a system in America where the politicians pick the voters, rather than the voters picking the politicians,” Lessig said.
Out of the 435 seats in Congress, 345 are what Lessig referred to as “safe seats.” This means that due to carefully drawn voter wards that include largely members of a majority party, these districts face virtually no opposition from the minority party during election season. This leaves only 90 districts to be contested between parties in congressional races.
“This means that 89 million Americans live in districts where the congressperson doesn’t care what that person thinks,” Lessig said. “Because that person happens to be the minority in a majority safe seat district.”
Lessig’s largest and most complex point was the corruption that Congress faces due to money in politics.
“In America, we take it for granted that campaigns will be privately funded.” Lessig said. “But the funding of campaigns is…its own primary.”
This “money primary” includes only the wealthiest contributors to campaigns, who choose the candidates on whom the rest of America votes.
He illustrated this point by examining the largest campaign contributors’ effects on the most recent election. The maximum one person can give to a contributor, he explained, is $5,200. In 2014, 57,874 people “maxed out” their contributions; in perspective, that is 0.02 percent of the population of the United States. According to Lessig, this tiny percentile of citizens are the relevant funders of this critical first stage that determines who are the candidates that get to run for Congress.
“What this is, is corruption,” he said.
This corruption produces an “unrepresentative democracy.” In a study performed by Princeton, researchers found that government actions were highly correlated with the support of the economic elite and organized special interest, while there was little correlation between government actions and the support of the average voter.
“The average voter is not having any independent effect on what our Congress does,” Lessig said.
Physics major in attendance Anna Floersch seems optimistic about the possibility of solving this nationwide problem. “The first step to solving any problem is understanding what it is,” she said. “And he did a good job of…teaching us what the problem is.”
While this corruption seems inevitable, Lessig said there is a solution.
“The problem is representative democracy; what we’ve got to do it restore representative democracy,” Lessig said, then added, “No amendment to the Constitution is actually necessary. Congress could pass the changes to make [this] happen tomorrow.”
Lessig ended by stressing the importance of change, especially addressing a younger generation. He referenced the need for action on issues such as climate change and student debt, but emphasized that nothing could be reformed until congressional corruption is solved, saying, “Yours is the most important issue. But mine is the first issue.”
This problem of institutional corruption is one that will be difficult to solve, but Lessig believes it will be worth it.
“We need a government that can do its work. We need a court that can do its work,” he said, finishing his presentation with a call to action for Americans who have “never been angrier” about the state of their government, and said he is “incredibly optimistic.”