The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mick Mulvaney shows why we need to radically change our elections

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 18. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

Lawrence Lessig is the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard University and founder of Equal Citizens.

Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director and acting head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, told lobbyists last week what they already knew: Legislators are dependent upon their funders, and their funders are not the people.

Speaking to 1,300 attendees of the American Bankers Association conference, Mulvaney reported that as a congressman, he never spoke to lobbyists who hadn’t given him money, sometimes spoke to lobbyists who had, but always spoke to constituents who “came from back home and sat in my lobby.”

He then pleaded with the bankers to use that insight to get Congress to dismantle the consumer protection agency that he now heads, reminding them such influence represents the “fundamental underpinnings of our representative democracy.”

For students of Congress, Mulvaney’s comments revealed nothing new. Over the past few decades, scholars have shown empirically that access to members of Congress is enabled by contributions and that legislation is affected when a lobbyist holds a fundraiser for a member of Congress.

But while this economy of influence of D.C. has been well-known among its players for some time, what is striking now is how open the players have become about sharing this corruption with the public. The only way to break this culture is through radical changes that change how we fund our elections.

Mulvaney must have realized his comments would be reported, just as Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) must have known that it would not pass unremarked when he publicly noted that his donors threatened to break ties with him if the tax bill didn’t pass.

Yet Washington seems comfortable with the influence bazaar it has built; it seems wholly unconcerned that some wannabe savior will come to cast the money changers from the temple of democracy.

It cannot be that a system so dependent upon such an unrepresentative few could ever represent the many fairly or effectively. That is the fundamental underpinning of our representative democracy, and that is the simplest way to see its corruption. James Madison promised a Congress “dependent on the people alone,” yet Madison’s promise is a fantasy today. Congress is dependent not on the people alone but on the funders of campaigns.

Reformers call to get money out of politics. But we might as well wish for zero-cost electric cars or medical care. Money is essential to politics, because politics is about speech and speech is not free. No one would say that America is overeducated about political issues, so everyone should be anxious about reforms that would cut back on the resources available to help Americans understand them.

Instead, the solution to this corruption is to focus on the problem — not the money, but the dependency. The problem with a system in which members of Congress auction access and influence is that the funders are not the people. As scholars have demonstrated, in no sense are the funders of campaigns representative of America. Instead, they are older, they are whiter, they are more male, and they are more conservative — regardless of whether they are Republicans or Democrats.

Yet we could easily build a system that would make the funders more representative. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) has rallied almost 160 co-sponsors to a bill to fund congressional campaigns publicly through matching grants for small contributions. That would broaden the field of contributors substantially. But even more dramatically, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) is about to introduce a bill that would give every voter a $50 voucher to use to fund campaigns. As an experience with vouchers in Seattle demonstrates, that could radically change the character of the funders of campaigns. If done right, it could make those funders representative.

That would not remove the dependency of Congress on campaign money. It would shift it — from clearly unrepresentative to potentially extremely representative. Because with the spread of these vouchers to every voter, whether rich or poor, the business model of campaign fundraising would change. No longer would members spend 30 to 70 percent of their time calling rich people begging for money. No longer would they depend upon lobbyists. Instead, their campaigns would organize broad-based events that drew millions of people to fund campaigns rather than a few thousand.

Politicians find it hard to give a full-throated defense of citizen-funded campaigns. Even Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) could only ever speak of public funding as something for “the long term” — as if any of his critically important ideas would have a snowball’s chance in hell in a world where this hierarchy of access puts citizens at the back of the line.

But maybe now, when politicians have become so open about the corruption of this system, there is a chance to rally at least some to fix it. Not through slogans or personal attacks, but with real reforms to Washington’s economy of influence.

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