The Change Congress Initiative

In 1971, one of the great experiments in congressional reform began when Ralph Nader enlisted more than 800 college students to spend their summer vacation doing extensive research profiles of every member of Congress (484) and six key Congressional committees. It was a monstrously complicated project of citizen oversight of Congress that made the institutional life of Congress a major national issue. The project generated some 21,000 pages of books and reports in the process of exposing Congress as a world of “protocol, alcohol and Geritol.”

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Some things have gotten better since then. The seniority system has been defanged; ethics rules and sunshine-in-government requirements have improved; and even modest campaign finance limits have been enacted (if irregularly enforced). But Congress remains far too insulated from the people, and too beholden to monied interests, to truly represent the people in an open, accountable way. Americans deserve better.

Larry Lessig and Joe Trippi have just announced an ambitious odyssey into the swamp known as congressional reform by launching a new Web-fueled initiative, Change Congress. The project intends to use a number of Internet tools to help mobilize new political pressure to bear on individual members of Congress for reform. Lessig is the founder of the Creative Commons who, for the past ten years, has worked to establish an international movement for “free culture,” — free, that is, from excessive copyright restrictions so that the commoners can have greater control over their own culture. Trippi was the campaign manager for Howard Dean’s remarkable presidential campaign in 2004, which showed the budding promise of Internet-driven campaigning. He also worked for the John Edwards campaign until Edwards dropped out of the race.

The Change Congress project asks members of Congress to sign a four-point pledge: not to accept contributions from registered lobbyists or political action committees; to support the abolition of budget “earmarks”; to support reforms to increase transparency in Congress; and to support public financing of public elections. The project also asks citizens to signal their support for these pledges. (Actually, people are invited to choose which combination of the four pledges, or all four, that they may wish to support.)

Rather than assembling a massive list of signatories on a petition, or holding yet another press conference for the news media, Change Congress seeks to use the Internet as a political tool. It hopes to expose (shame?) legislators who are beholden to PACs and help voters band together to direct their money to candidates who agree to “take the pledge.” The Change Congress website features a U.S. map that enables you to learn how much of your Representative’s campaign war chest comes from PACs. The site also invites you to download its “Change Congress” logo and affix it to your personal website. The idea is to use the Web to help people send a “social signal” about congressional reform, and hopefully, to propagate that meme (“Change Congress”) as a way to nurture a new social norm. This is essentially what the Creative Commons has done with its ubiquitous CC symbols.

Reforming campaign financing and internal procedures in Congress has got to be one of the most complicated, difficult issues to tackle. In effect, it amounts to taking on the political economy of capitalism, which, as we know, is not terribly receptive to change. The Nader Congress Project (which later evolved into Congress Watch) has spent a generation of this struggle, working with such groups as Common Cause, Public Campaign and many state-based organizations.

Yet this may also be part of the problem, paradoxically enough. Many of the liberal and good-government reformers who have been involved in these issues are themselves fairly entrenched, protective of their turf and not open to the decentralized experimentation and participation that the Internet facilitates. The activists who have been working in these particular Washington trenches for decades could use some new ideas and fresh reinforcements, if not a new generation of leadership.

So the emergence of Change Congress, led by two sophisticates of the online world, should be a fascinating experiment. Can the power of Internet be harnessed to reform a hidebound Congress that has invented new ways to protect its power? Will people rally to the call for reform? And what sort of alliances with traditional political and advocacy leaders may be needed to give this effort serious momentum? The answer may reveal a great deal about the new style of citizenship that is a-bornin’ on the Internet — the capacity of citizens to take things into their own hands, and make history, instead of relying upon compromised proxies, gatekeepers and institutions to do the work that, in truth, can only be discharged by citizens.

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