A ‘Cheap Way to Make Conservative Politics Possible’?

By Danny

Jan 22, 2009 6:54pm

ABC News’ Teddy Davis and Ferdous Al-Faruque report: Change Congress co-founder Lawrence Lessig discusses a "donor strike" at ABC News’ Washington Bureau on Jan. 9, 2009.
Ferdous Al-Faruque/ ABC News Can Al Gore’s effort to overhaul telecom law in the 1990s persuade grassroots conservatives to get behind campaign reform? Lawrence Lessig, the incoming director of Harvard’s center for ethics, sure hopes so. Lessig is the co-chair of Change Congress, an organization he co-founded last year with former Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi. Change Congress is hoping to build on Barack Obama’s success at raising small-donor contributions by calling for a donor strike. "I think of this as the anti-puppet movement," said Lessig. The goal of the strike is to keep big money out of politics by pressuring Congress to enact a hybrid system of small-dollar donations plus public financing Lessig wants to bring pressure to bear on the House and Senate by having voters pledge on-line that they are withholding any future contributions from federal candidates until they sign off on the Change Congress proposal. He acknowledges that campaign finance reform has been traditionally associated with liberals. Lessig thinks, however, that there is no reason why it should be: "In 1994, when Al Gore was proposing a change to the Communications Act that would take the Internet-related parts of Title II, Telecom, and the Internet-related parts of Title VI, cable, and put it under a new Title VII that had less regulations than the network neutrality people are talking about today, his team took to the Hill . . . and the response they got was, ‘Hell, no!’ How are we ever going to raise money from these guys if we deregulate them?’" "Conservatives should listen to that story and recognize that there’s a built-in incentive for government to reach as far as it can so the committee chairman has somebody to call when they need to raise money," Lessig continued. "If conservatives want to have a fair fight about how big government is, they need to remove the incentive that exists right now to make government bigger and bigger so that it’s easier to raise money." Under Lessig’s proposal, congressional candidates who raise a threshold number of small-dollar contributions would qualify for a chunk of funding — somewhere on the order of several hundred thousand dollars. If the congressional candidate were to accept this money, they couldn’t raise big-dollar donations. They could only raise contributions up to a certain amount, say, $100 or $250, which would be matched several times over by a government fund. According to David Donnelly, national campaigns director for Public Campaign Action Fund, bipartisan legislation similar to the Change Congress proposal is expected to be offered this year by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., as well as Reps. John Larson, D-Conn., and Walter Jones, R-N.C. Lessig, who founded Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society, says no new taxpayer dollars would be required. Television broadcasters, who currently get access to the public airwaves for free, would pay for the right to use those airwaves by paying into a central fund. Asked if conservatives would reject his proposal out of a belief that the GOP will one day be back in control of the committee chairmanships on Capitol Hill, Lessig said "insider elite conservatives" might think that way but grassroots conservatives would see it differently. "They are going to think, ‘this system is broken and I can now see why we’ve had 20 years of Republican presidents who have come in and not been able to shrink government,’" said Lessig.    "This is a pretty cheap way to make conservative politics possible," he added. ABC News’ David Chalian contributed to this report.

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