I went to the Rootstrikers conference yesterday, which consisted of a few panel debates/discussions plus questions from the audience. I also got to hang out in a bar at a table with Lawrence Lessig for a half hour or so after the conference, which was pretty cool. I’ll summarize the conference here, and include links for anyone who wants to follow the movement or get actively involved.
Stepping back: there are two core ideas behind Rootstrikers: (1) representative democracy in the United States is being corrupted by the influence of money and money-connected lobbying, and (2) even if this corruption isn’t the most important problem to solve, it is the FIRST problem to solve, since it is blocking satisfactory progress on nearly every other issue (climate change, tax reform, health care costs, etc.). Lessig has a variety of talks laying this out; the most recent one at TED is particularly well done (I hadn’t seen it until yesterday), and I highly recommend it:
The main question is what to do if you believe this argument. I’m going to focus on what to do with a small amount of time. There are a few different efforts attacking the problem, and each one could use a small amount of time in different ways. The common thread in all of these is (1) provide public funding for elections and (2) block lobbying and large donor funding from swamping the public funding:
I just read the full text of it online here. The plan is to get one million “citizen co-sponsors”, then seek co-sponsors in Congress and attempt to pass the bill. It consists of a variety of explicit “no corruption” provisions, the best of which forces Congresspeople to recuse themselves from legislation regulating their significant donors. It also gives each citizen a $\$100$ tax rebate which they can donate to any candidate who agrees to fairly strict per-donor limits ($\$500$ / person, in particular); more discussion of this below. All the provisions seem good, except possibly banning Congresspeople from raising money while their house is in session, which may be unworkable and/or unnecessary given the other provisions.
If you agree with the provisions, please co-sponsor it even if you believe it is vanishingly unlikely to pass directly! If a sufficient number of people get on board, it will generate a lot of media attention even if Congress ignores it, which could further boost support for the general movement. Moreover (I asked Lessig about this at the bar), if it fails at the federal level it can be used as a model for legislation at the state level.
Signing on is easy, though you should read either the summary or hopefully the full text first. Presumably it’ll generate a small amount of email spam, which you can largely ignore until it moves to the next stage of attempted introduction to Congress. In the best case I can imagine a SOPA/PIPA-ish spamming of Congress by the entire internet when this happens; the main point of tolerating the email spam would be to know when to participate in such (call/email representatives, etc.).
Several states have passed publicly financed election laws with tremendous effect. In several, the vast majority of candidates sign on to public financing, which requires them to accept money only in small portions from individuals which are then matched by the state. Common Cause has a summary of which states provide public financing.
Other states are very close. In particular, in New York both the governor and the majority of the legislature is on board with the idea. The Brennan Center has a description of one proposed plan. If you live in New York, please email or call your representative and ask them to support this effort! Passing public financing in one of the largest states would be huge.
In California, there is a proposed bill called the California Disclose Act, which would expand disclosure requirements in a few different ways. For example, political television ads would be required to clearly state their three largest donors. You can help this effort by contacting your state representative and asking them to support it.
Other states may have similar efforts: look them up!
There are two main organizations focused on a constitutional amendment for federally funded elections, Wolf PAC and Move to Amend. There are two arguments for a constitutional amendment: (1) the Supreme Court has started to block campaign finance reform as unconstitutionally infringing on the first amendment, and (2) Congress is so horrifically corrupt that there no chance of Congress-based reform. The downside is that constitutional amendments are very hard.
Wolf PAC is lobbying state legislatures to pass a resolution calling for an Article 5 Constitutional Convention, with the goal of an amendment that (1) bans corporate personhood and (2) implements federal public funding of elections. Move to Amend is similar. The corporate personhood ban makes me a bit angry, and I was rather turned off by how demagogic Move to Amend’s David Cobb sounded when he spoke at the conference. Huge individual donors (who often own corporations) seem just as bad as corporations to me, and it turns out only 11% of SuperPAC (I think) money in the last presidential election came from corporations; the rest was from individuals.
However, Wolf PAC has made some interesting progress pushing on state legislatures to call a convention, and they seem a good route if you want to contribute a small portion of time. Cenk Uygur said that often it only takes a handful of calls from constituents (say, 5 people) to turn a state legislator into a co-sponsor of their plan. The convention itself is fairly safe: once called it has the power only to propose the amendment, which must then be ratified. Moreover, there is historical precedent for Congress freaking out if this kind of thing seems likely to happen and passing amendments themselves, which could speed up the process.
Thus, with the proviso that corporate personhood may be an irrelevant emotional push-button, Wolf PAC (and possibly Move to Amend) may be a good use of a small amount of time, either to call one’s own representatives or to call people in key states to get them to call their representatives in turn.
Or just Rootstrikers
If you’re unsure which option is best but want to follow the movement, a good default is to just sign up with the Rootstrikers mailing list, which will keep you informed of how both of it and related projects are developing.
More conference summary
The conference itself was organized into the following four sessions:
Different mechanisms for public financing
There was a panel discussion debating the merits of three different mechanisms for public funding: matching funds, vouchers, and tax rebates. All three in order to be meaningful would disallow candidates accepting public financing from raising additional campaign money, and would limit individual donations to a small amount (between $\$100$ and $\$500$, typically). Matching funds would multiply the individual donation by some amount (say 6x), and vouchers and tax rebates would both provide a small amount of free money per citizen to donate to the candidate of their choice. The vouchers and tax rebates have the obvious benefit that extremely poor people can still participate. Tax rebates also fit perfectly into the historical narrative of America’s anti-tax streak: the Republican advocating for tax rebates expressed this beautifully as “No taxation without representation”, meaning no taxation without representation in the funding part of elections.
One suggested advantage of matching funds is that small amounts of money could be provided to start candidates off, but this fits in just as well to the tax rebate scheme. In fact, if you believed as an individual citizen that a tax rebate scheme didn’t do enough of this, you could simply donate your rebate to a general pool of small candidate helper money established by an authorized 3rd party, which would then donate to an appropriate candidate, solving this problem without need for special provisions.
Thus, tax rebates seem like the best scheme. They are also the one included in the American Anti-Corruption Act, which is great.
Campaign finance reform as a civil rights issue
The next discussion consisted of various people arguing that this sort of political corruption and campaign finance reform can be understood as fitting into the narrative of civil rights, since African Americans, Latinos, etc. are disproportionally not included in the tiny number of significant donors. This seems quite true, and articulating it could build support for campaign finance reform from those focused on civil rights issues. Unfortunately, due to the extremely unfortunate polarized nature of the civil rights debate, linking the two issues has the potential downside of turning away many people on the right.
Lessig expressed this concern in an interesting way in his keynote speech at the end. The founders certainly lacked a modern understanding of the dangers of discrimination based on race, gender, etc. However, one thing they did understand was class, and the constitution was explicitly intended to prevent takeover of the government by some sort of aristocracy. This has clearly failed, and the advantage of interpreting the corruption issue in this context is that it fits into a narrative that existing in a reasonably correct form from the beginning of the country.
Luckily, we can do both, so not really a conflict.
Constitutional amendments and corporate personhood
This session was more of an actual debate, between three people advocating for a constitutional amendment as the sole focus and one person arguing for a focus on state efforts (in particular the strong possibility of public financing in New York). As mentioned, I was a bit turned off by the pro-amendment side’s emphasis on corporate personhood as opposed to the actual solution of public financing of elections. The more important details are above.
Lessig then played his TED talk and then gave a related in-person talk, both of which were quite good. The TED talk is great even if you’ve seen similar talks of his, so definitely worth watching.