A Harvard Law School professor's idea on campaign finance reform took center stage at a Senate subcommittee hearing July 24, when he suggested holding "citizen conventions" to craft a constitutional amendment in response to the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Lawrence Lessig, who also directs Harvard University's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, testified that conventions of 300 randomly selected people, held in four areas of the country, could act as a citizens' jury of how to respond in the wake of the 2010 decision. Americans will not trust Congress or a "blue ribbon" panel to do what is right, Lessig said, because they "can't believe the institution has the capacity to change itself to deal with the core problem."
Of course Lessig's suggestion presupposes that the Citizens United decision came out incorrectly, or has produced negative results, a discussion we can put aside for purposes of this post. Instead, I would like to briefly comment on the broader, and fascinating, idea of citizen conventions.
Why should such a novel approach to political issues be limited to campaign finance reform? What better way to capture the pulse of America? What better way to gain consensus on issues? What better way to avoid partisan struggle? What better safety net could exist to ensure that legislators wouldn't fear proposing innovative solutions to problems? What better way to bridge the obvious geo-political gulfs in American society?
Citizen conventions, like juries, could capture the American feeling of the moment in a truly democratic, rather than somewhat representational, manner. They could solve many of the problems I have identified with America and its political system today. They would likely be very well received by the general public. And they are about as likely to happen as me winning the lottery tonight...