Lawrence Lessig: Framers of our Constitution meant Congress to be a great deliberative body
Fundraising demands pushed Republican leadership to give up on stated goal of shrinking size of government, he says
Editor’s Note: Lawrence Lessig is Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership, Harvard Law School, and author of the book, “Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress and a Plan to Stop It.” This is an updated version of an article originally published here. The views expressed are his own.
The word is that Donald Trump is considering Newt Gingrich for vice president. Trump needs an insider, someone with real experience. Former Speaker Gingrich, leader of the Republican resurgence in the House in the early 1990s, certainly has that experience. Indeed, there is perhaps no one else on the right with the knowledge that Gingrich has – and no one else who would be a better target for the increasingly reform-focused Democratic Party.
For more than any other American, it is Newt Gingrich who broke Congress. It was he who gave us the current version of that hopelessly dysfunctional institution – an institution which, according to a Gallup Poll, now has the confidence of 9% of the American people. That monster is his baby, and no one should deny him his parental bragging rights.
The Framers of our Constitution meant Congress to be a great deliberative body. It has become an embarrassment. Congress doesn’t deliberate to resolve important national issues. Congress fundraises, and postures to fundraise, to support the next fight for control.
The transformation to this “Fundraising Congress” began in 1993. Newt Gingrich was its leader. After claiming Republican control of both houses of Congress in 1995 – for the first time in 40 years – Gingrich launched his new army of reformers on a project to secure permanent control of that institution, and of government.
Fundraising was the key to that strategy of control. The Republicans came to power raising a then unheard of amount of money: $618.42 million in the election cycle ending in 1994, compared to the Democrats’ $488.68 million.
In the four years between 1994 and 1998, Republican candidates and party committees would raise over $1 billion. Never before had a party come anywhere close to raising that amount of money, because never before had any party’s leaders so effectively focused the energy of their members on this single task: fundraising.
Gingrich concentrated the “work” of Congress into a three-day “work” week. He sent his caucus home for the rest of the week, in part so they had time to launch cross-country fundraising missions.
He exploded the number of committees, radically increasing the number of fundraising targets. He ended any idea of bipartisanship. Instead, as Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tennessee, described, the focus of Congress after Gingrich’s reforms became the “majority of the majority,” (i.e., the majority of the Republicans) polarizing the institution to the end of assuring ever more loyal and energized troops.
Members of Congress now spend between 30% to 70% of their time raising money to get re-elected to Congress or to get their party back into power. And not just the Republicans: The Democrats quickly followed the lessons of Professor Gingrich. And in the 20 years since he came to power, practically everything about that great institution has changed.
Gone is any semblance of deliberation, or the idea that there is a business of the nation to be done, as opposed to the business of the party in power. Instead, the institution that Gingrich inherited – the one in which Democrats worked with Republicans to pass the most important tax reform in modern history (Reagan’s), and in which Republicans led Democrats to break a filibuster in the Senate and pass the most important social legislation in a century (The Civil Rights Act of 1964) – was gone. What replaced it is the completely dysfunctional institution that practically no American has confidence in today.
More important to the right, as the business of Congress became the business of fundraising, the ideals that had brought Gingrich to power quickly got compromised. Fundraising demands pushed the Republican leadership to give up on its stated goal of shrinking the size of government, so that it could better use the power of majority status to raise campaign cash. As the Washington Post’s Robert Kaiser reported in his 2009 book, “So Damn Much Money”:
“Republicans took over … determined to cut the government down to size. [But] their ambitions were soon compromised. … Gingrich initially supported … efforts to impose discipline on spending. … But in the face of perceived political necessity, the leadership wavered. Cutting spending was good, but Gingrich, (Dick) Armey, (Tom) DeLay, and others quickly realized that ‘we have another aspect to our existence here, which is that we must use the Appropriations Committee as a resource to protect our vulnerables, because once we got into power, we wanted to stay in power.’”
The job of Congress was no longer the work of the nation. The job of Congress was to help its majority “to stay in power.”
This is the legacy of Speaker Gingrich. It is a legacy that has done the nation great harm.
If Trump does indeed nominate Gingrich, he would give the Democrats a perfect target. Already, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, has announced a Democratic reform package to fix the Congress that Newt broke. Hillary Clinton has indicated strong support for its key elements. With Gingrich on the ticket, the Democrats would have the perfect chance to make their case: The Republicans broke Congress; the Democrats will fix it.