Larry Lessig may have good ideas about campaign finance reform, but his ideas about the presidency are totally wrong.
From a policy perspective one of the more interesting candidacies for the presidency this cycle has to be that of Larry Lessig the Harvard Law professor running for the Democratic nomination on the single issue of large scale campaign finance reform. His website sums up a hypothetical Lessig presidency as consisting of:
- Larry Lessig would run as a “referendum president” who promises to serve only as long as it takes to pass the Citizens Equality Act of 2017.
- Lessig would use that mandate to get Congress to pass the Citizens Equality Act of 2017.
- Once this package is passed, Larry Lessig would step down, and the vice president would become president.
The problem here is pretty basic. Under the Constitution the executive and legislative branches are coequal and separate institutions. And so even if Lessig was elected president on his single issues campaign (which is never going to happen) Congress can feel free to ignore all his claims about mandates and just vote down his bill. In fact Congress could just refuse to even bring it up for a vote if it wanted to.
In short presidents need to have allies in Congress if they want to pass significant legislation, and even then passing major laws can still be difficult. Seth Masket put it this way in the Pacific Standard the other day:
One key feature of the American presidency is its institutional weakness. The president has a great deal of authority in foreign affairs and military matters, especially in times of crisis, but for most of what a president does and seeks to do, he or she is heavily dependent on the Congress. Claiming a mandate from the people from the previous election is rarely sufficient to make laws happen.
This is part of what stymied Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Carter was nominated at a time when the parties were unusually weak and in which the presidential nomination system was in flux. A bandwagoning strategy, by which a sufficiently ambitious candidate could work the media and win enough early primaries and caucuses to secure the nomination, actually worked back then, regardless of what party insiders might have wanted. The result was that Carter entered office without a set of allies in the party or a disciplined Democratic caucus in the Congress. His general lack of legislative accomplishments as president shows what that’ll get you.
This is less of a concern during a time of cohesive parties like we have today, but nonetheless, Lessig seems to be pursuing a somewhat similar strategy. Were his campaign to succeed, he might be able to claim some kind of mandate, but he’d have no real set of allies in the Congress or elsewhere.
Yup, Congress can feel free to ignore presidents when it comes to what they chose to vote on. That’s exactly what happen to Bill Clinton’s health care bill in the early 90’s; to George W. Bush’s plan to privative Social Security in his second term; and more recently it’s what happened to President Obama’s attempts to pass immigration reform. Please note that all of these presidents saw their plans foiled by opposition in Congress after supposedly wining mandates in elections or re-elections.
To be sure Lessig does has some interesting ideas about how to change how campaigns are financed and so he might have an impact on our national debate, if only by highlighting new ideas for reform. But as a candidate running for president? Well he totally doesn’t understand how the institutions of the presidency or Congress work, so basically his is wasting all of our time.
And as Masket points out, Lessig totally doesn’t understand what’s going on in Game Of Thrones either.
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