Stanford law professor Larry Lessig plans to use collaborative software to change Congress.
Courtesy Larry LessigA prominent Stanford law professor on Thursday launched an ambitious project that aims to use collaborative software to harness the extraordinary levels of pent-up political energy and dissatisfaction that voters have shown over the past two years with their members of congress.
The Change Congress project's first mission is to diminish the influence of money in the legislative body by influencing the outcome of the 2008 election campaigns of 67 members of congress which are up for grabs. As the Change Congress project founder Larry Lessig noted in the project's launch Thursday afternoon, there haven't been so many seats open up for challenge in more than a decade.
Lessig, known for his decade-long role in trying to loosen the entertainment industry's vise-like grip on popular culture by shaping copyright law, is betting that the energy and dissatisfaction exhibited by voters against the status-quo in Washington DC, and the emergence of collaborative software that enables vast numbers of geographically-dispersed citizens to become politically active on their own schedule, will enable a new kind of transparency and accountability in political campaigns.
"The problem we face is ... the problem of crony capitalism using money to capture government," he said on Monday during the launch of his project in Washington, DC. "The challenge is whether in fact we can change this. The political experts tell you that it can't be done, that process always win over substance."
Lessig and Joe Trippi hope that their project will bring the beginnings of this change by getting voters to challenge their members of congress to commit to Change Congress' four pledges. The project will rely on engaged voters to record and map both the responses by, and the positions of candidates who are running for open seats. The idea is to make what seems like an abstract idea visually tangible through a Google mash-up.
The professor wants legislators to promise to do four things which he says will reduce the influence of money on policymaking: To promise not to accept money from lobbyists and political action committees; support public financing of elections; commit to passing legislation to permanently ban the funneling of money to their districts' projects of questionable worth; and to commit to "compel transparency in the functioning of congress."
Candidates can signal their intentions to take any one or all of the pledges by filling out a form at the organization's web site, which then formulates code that provides a graphic that the candidates can then place on their election campaign web sites.
The Change Congress project hopes that citizens will track congressional candidates' positions on these issues by reporting on them at the web site. The project will then map these results onto a
Google map. Writing in The Huffington Post this morning, Lessig explained:
... once this wiki-army has tracked the positions of all Members of Congress, we will display a map of reform, circa 2008: Each Congressional district will be colored in either (1) dark red, or dark blue, reflecting Republicans or Democrats who have taken a pledge, (2) light red or light blue, tracking
Republicans and Democrats who have not taken our pledge, but who have signaled support for planks in the Change-Congress platform, or (3) for those not taking the pledge and not signaling support for a platform of reform, varying shades of sludge, representing the percentage of the
Member's campaign contributions that come from PACs or lobbyists.
What this map will reveal, we believe, is something that not many now actually realize: That the support for fundamental reform is broad and deep. That recognition in turn will encourage more to see both the need for reform and the opportunity that this election gives us to achieve it. Apathy is driven by the feeling that nothing can be done. This Change Congress map will demonstrate that in fact, something substantial can be done. Now.
Lessig says that the project will, down the road, model itself on Emily's List in that it will recruit contributors to finance candidates who make reforming congress a central part of their campaign.
When the Democrats re-took congress in 2006, they won on a platform built by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's mantra of being against the Republicans' culture of corruption.
Yet the Democratic-led congress' current job approval rating is in the low twenties. This apparent dissatisfaction suggests that a large body of people might be ready and interested in volunteering for the Change Congress project.
So far, senator Barack Obama's campaign for the Democratic nomination for president has surged on this theme of bringing change to Washington, DC. The Illinois senator's seemingly magical combination of inspirational rhetoric, off-line community-organization strategies, combined with the smart design of online social networking tools have fostered high levels of engagement.
The question facing the Change Congress campaign is whether Lessig and his colleagues at the Sunlight Foundation can motivate a bi-partisan electorate to become similarly engaged without – at first at least – the funds and advertising budget that's powering the Obama campaign.
In an interview, Lessig says that for now, he's going to focus on motivating people to volunteer their time to research members of congress' positions on transparency, accountability and public financing of campaigns.
"If you give them a big vision, and talk about all the good things that will come out of it, then I think a lot of people will be willing to do the wiki work [at home] in their pajamas," he says. "The hard thing is getting them to go to rallies and getting them to call their congressman."
Lessig says that his goal is to raise $500,000 to fund the project for the year by May 1. He hopes to hire a couple of staffers in the San Francisco bay area and an executive director.
The project has bipartisan appeal – Republicans took over congress in 1994 with similar promises of sweeping change. As National Journal has thoroughly documented, many of those promises were not fulfilled.
This time, it could be different – now that an engaged electorate has software and an open reporting system to hold their members' feet to the fire.
Update: In answer to the reader below's question on what happens if a member of congress takes a pledge and doesn't follow through, Lessig says that he anticipates that each district will have voters who will monitor their members' activities and report on them.
"If you violate the pledge, you've created a huge opportunity for people to attack you," he says.
Update: The Sunlight Foundation has posted footage of the lecture up on Google Video:
this video is no longer available