Consider the Possibility that Congress Isn't Very Smart.

Matt Bai has a piece in this weekend's New York Times Magazine riffing off of Larry Lessig's important work in correcting both the perception and practice of Congress being horrifyingly warped by the money that flows into campaign coffers. Lessig's work to reform Congress deserves more attention and debate, for sure. So that's good. But Bai takes issue with what he reads to be Lessig's inordinate focus on the corrupting role of lobbyists all while giving Congress' members a pass despite some or all 535 of them being, well, dirty crooks:

The problem with Lessig’s indictment and others like it isn’t that they are too hard on lobbyists who try to influence the system. It’s that they’re too easy on the politicians who cave to the pressure. Those who denounce the recent Supreme Court ruling and call for radical reform of the campaign-finance system tend to present a picture of Washington as a modern Gomorrah, in which irresistible temptation lurks around every marble column. If you vote the way some lobbyist wants you to vote on his obscure amendment, you will be rewarded with mountains of cash in your next campaign; if you don’t, that same money may be used to finance a barrage of negative ads against you.

It's an awfully black-and-white and almost cartoonish picture that Bai paints. Members of Congress should, if they weren't such moral monsters to the last, "simply do what's right and face the consequences." Instead, they are like a deli cashier who would pass you slices of E. coli-laden ham if it means being able to clock out earlier. "Most of us would sooner leave our jobs than follow orders to defraud clients or falsify records." Yes, humans behave this way. Not so the sinister bunch on the Hill.

An alternative theory of Congress: They're not crooks, they're idiots! So many members of Congress -- too many of them -- outsource their thinking, and voting, on all but the matters most central to their own affairs, to the think tanks and lobbyists who are paid, well, to produce articulate and generally verifiable (though, naturally, quite biased) talking points, background memoranda, and opening statements on whichever topics matter most to their interests. I think Lessig's approach, in the early going, has flaws, too. But the weak spot seems to be in not devoting enough attention to how information flows through Congress -- not in its failure to paint legislatures evilly enough.

-- Nancy Scola

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