A Reply to Congressman Conyers

Mr. Conyers says I “cross the line.” He says I label his motivations for introducing this bill as “corrupt,” that I accuse him of “shilling,” and that I “dismiss” his bill as nothing more than a “money for influence scheme.” On the basis of this “one piece of legislation,” he says I have waved away “forty years of fighting against special interests.” He insists that he has “earned a bit more of the benefit of the doubt” and “that there is far more to the ‘open access’ story than [my] muckracking tale lets on.” (Mike Eisen and my original posts are here and here. My blog post is here.)

First, as to substance: As others have shown without doubt, there is absolutely no “more to the ‘open access’ story” than my and Mike Eisen’s criticism let on. (See the rebuttals especially here and here.) This bill is nothing more than a “publishers’ protection act.” It is an awful step backwards for science — as 33 Nobel Prize winners, the current and former head of the NIH, the American Library Association, and the Alliance for Taxpayer Access have all said. And Mr. Conyers knows this. Practically the identical bill was introduced in the last Congress. Mr. Conyers’ committee held hearings on that bill. The “open access” community rallied to demonstrate that this publishers’ bill was bad for science. Even some of the cosponsors of the bill admitted the bill was flawed. Yet after that full and fair hearing on this flawed bill, like Jason in Friday the 13th, the bill returned — unchanged, as if nothing in the hundreds of reasons for why this bill was flawed mattered to the sponsors.

Second, as to “corruption”: There are corrupt Members in Congress — fewer, I believe, than at any time in our history, but the Randy “Duke” Cunninghams or Ted “A Series of Tubes” Stevens mean there must be at least some. John Conyers is not one of that class — and nothing in what I wrote said anything different. I neither accused him of “shilling” nor labeled his “motivations” as “corrupt.” The word “shilling” appeared in a question, begged by the combination of a disproportionate contribution and sponsorship of a baseless law. The word “corrupt” described a system, not a Member. Conyers is not “corrupt.” Neither are his motivations. He is instead an extraordinary representative, a hero to many of us, the last member of the Judiciary Committee to vote to impeach Nixon still sitting on that committee, and a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. He is an extraordinarily good soul, like the vast majority who choose to serve in government today.

But these good souls work in a corrupted system. For of course I believe that Congress is defined by a “money for influence scheme” — as do thousands of others who have joined Change Congress’s “donor strike,” pledging not to give a penny more to candidates who don’t support fundamentally reforming our corrupt campaign-finance system. (Join here.) And who could believe any differently? Not a “scheme” in the crude sense that people are bribed, or that there’s a quid pro quo, this money for that legislation. But in the very real sense that money buys access, and that Members — some of whom spend between 30% and 70% of their time raising money to get back to Congress — develop a finely honed sixth sense, constantly aware of how what they do might affect their ability to raise money.

Who could possibly think that this system doesn’t corrupt what government does? Who could possibly believe it benign? The answer of course is no one — not the least a Member like Mr. Conyers who has spent forty years watching an honorable institution dissolve into a cabal of overpaid telemarketers. Just think about it: While America is facing crises more severe than any in the past generation, many (and maybe most?) Members of Congress are spending most of their time raising money to get back to Congress. This is like firefighters who take a coffee break in the middle of rescuing a trapped child, or police officers who stop at Starbucks on the way to a robbery. What sane person can look at this system and not think something has gone fundamentally wrong?

It is time that Congress take responsibility for the cynicism this system has produced. It is not enough for good souls to insist on their goodness. A good soul must act to change a corrupted system.

Supporting citizens’ funding of the nation’s elections — as Mr. Conyers has — is an important first step. That one change, I believe, would do more than any other to restore trustworthiness in Congress.

But that’s not all you could do, Mr. Conyers. You have it within your power to remove any doubt about the reasons you have for sponsoring the legislation you sponsor: Stop accepting contributions from the interests your committee regulates. This was the principle of at least some committee chairmen in the past. It is practically unheard of today. But you could set an important example for others, and for America, about how an uncorrupted system of government might work. And you could do so without any risk to your own position — because the product of your forty years of extraordinary work for the citizens of Michigan means that they’ll return you to office whether or not you spend one dime on a reelection. Indeed, if you did this, I’d promise to come to Michigan and hand out leaflets for your campaign.

Until you do this, Mr. Conyers, don’t lecture me about “crossing a line.” For I intend to cross this line as often as I can, the outrage and scorn of Members of Congress notwithstanding. This is no time to play nice. And yours is just the first in a series of many such stories to follow — targeting Republicans as well as Democrats, people who we agree with on substance as well as those we don’t, always focusing on bad bills that make sense only if you follow the money.

Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, you can help us. Join our strike4change, refusing to support any candidate who doesn’t support citizens’ funding of the nation’s elections. Or volunteer to help us track down more examples like this one.

We will take the heat from the elected elites. From you, we need just the support it will take to show enough that real change must happen — now.

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18 Responses to A Reply to Congressman Conyers

  1. Rick says:

    Rough weekend, eh? I can only imagine!!
    It was worth it, though. You nailed it.
    Well done.

  2. Steve Baba says:

    even when making an improper appeal to authority (33 Nobel price winners/ 33 million fleas eat shit so eating shit must be right)

    you have to get MOST of the authorities. I gather the other 100 or so did not sign.

    Especially when one is arguing that there is NO other case.

  3. Woozle says:

    Mr. Conyers seemed to be choosing to interpret your criticism as a personal attack (which it clearly was not — as emphasized by your response here), and then defending it solely on that basis — sort of a reverse ad-hominem. As you say, it was “as if nothing in the hundreds of reasons for why this bill was flawed mattered to the sponsors”. Love me, love my legislation.

    Mr. Conyers’s stance is rather redolent of authoritarian dominance games, where the first to apologize is seen as conceding the whole argument (“winner-take-all thinking” — discussion is seen as a contest for the authority to make a decision by fiat, rather than an attempt to make the best decision for the common good through fact-sharing and compromise). Be careful of that, and don’t let the dialogue end after the apology.

  4. Eric says:

    As a former Wisconsin State Assembly candidate, let me second your comments about money for access with a real story.
    As a candidate, I raised thousands of dollars (only to be outspent 3 to 1) by getting small donations, less than $100. I received one $100 donation in the mail and was thrilled and immediately called the donor to thank him personally. Looking back a few years later, I realized what I did was what is screwed up about the system: dollars = access. It’s only natural to want to thank someone who helps you above and beyond what most people do. If that guy had wanted to talk about policy, I would have damn sure listened. It’s not because I’m corrupt, its because of human nature. People think the candidates themselves are corrupt but after doing this, you realize its not that simple. Being beholden to donors is what is corrupt.

  5. On the risks of sounding pedantic, “The word ‘corrupt’ described a system, not a Member,” does not describe what you wrote in its entirety. While you did have a request for donations to fight, “the underlying cause of this corruption,” you also used the word corrupt in the following contexts:

    “When you sign, we’ll email a phone number where you can call your members of Congress to ask them to oppose H.R. 801 — the corrupt publishing industry bill. We’ll also send John Conyers’ number.”


    “Who’s against the corrupt publishing bill?”

    [emphasis added.]

    The bill is initially described as, “A new report by transparency group MAPLight.org shows that sponsors of this bill — led by Rep. John Conyers — received twice as much money from the publishing industry as those on the relevant committee who are not sponsors.”

    I don’t think it is a stretch for Representative Conyers to state that you were accusing him of corruption, and you out-and-out implied that he pushed forward this bill because he received donations: “This is exactly the kind of money-for-influence scheme that constantly happens behind our backs […]”

    Also, we should note the headline of the article, “Is John Conyers Shilling for Special Interests?” Is there any question that this was a rhetorical device implying that John Conyers was “shilling?” Are you seriously trying to state otherwise?

    I wish you had posted this message instead of your original one–it actually describes some of your reasons for opposing the bill while your initial note was incendiary.

    By the way, I agree that the bill is fatally flawed and shouldn’t be passed. I also agree with your analysis of the situation as to why the bill was brought back from the dead. But I’m a little surprised that you would be so defensive when a congressman responds strongly to being called corrupt and a shill.

  6. Jardinero1 says:

    We have citizen funding of elections, already. What the good professor proposes is state funding of elections. Good Professor, why don’t you call it what it is? At least then, the name will no longer belie what the outcome will be.

    What about the Constitution? Aren’t the various states responsible for determining how candidates are elected? How do you justify compulsory funding of a candidate I don’t support? In that same vein, how do you justify stripping my right to fund lobby groups who work on my behalf to promote causes I support?

  7. Kiaser Zohsay says:


    Would that be a “straw hominem” argument?

  8. staypuftman says:

    You really hit the core of the argument when you talked about the problem with the system and then referred to him as only one component of that corruption. Brilliant rhetorical tactic. Don’t think Conyers will see it that way though…

  9. reality says:

    Conyers, who sat on the House Judiciary Committee was one of the main forces stopping the Impeachment of President George W. Bush. (the other was fellow democrat Nancy Pelosi)

    Wake up Lessig.

    The failure to impeach has led us to a world where those who ordered torture (a war crime) have not been held accountable for their crimes.

    Obama has bombed Pakistan, escalated the War in Afghanistan (a country that has NEVER been conquered by foreign invaders) and has sided with Karl Rove and Harriet Myers on “executive privilege”.

    He also failed to publicly finance his campaign, despite promises to do so.

    I agree with what you said once about the criminalization of filesharing creating a generation that has no respect for the law, but how can we be expected to respect a system that fails to even investigate War Crimes such as torture, warrantless wiretapping, rendition and being held in prison for years without charges.

    We live in a lawless country.

    The lawlessness is coming from the top.

    Failure to Impeach/Investigate/Prosecute those who committed War Crimes means that the laws against War Crimes are not being enforced.

    Without enforcement, laws are merely suggestions.

  10. Steve Baba says:

    At least (un) Reality is consistent in calling everyone corrupt.

    Lessig is even worse than (un) Reality in that he has a bad tendency ( like his police officer/fireman who inconstantly show up) to only see or point out corruption when it’s on the opposite side.

    Unfortunately for the reform movement, Lessig is as dangerous as the police office/ fireman who only sometimes shows up since people lose faith in them and they take resources from honest cops/firemen.

  11. Steve Baba says:

    Now that I think about it, Lessig is less like Barney Fife taking a coffee break in an emergency

    and more like a biased 1950s cop who concentrates on some (Conyers, Clinton, minorities) and lets others off the hook (“most innocent” Daschle, Obama, good-old-boys) because of his bias.

  12. Darren says:

    @Steve Baba:

    Citing acknowledged scientific authorities’ opinions on a bill that affects scientific endeavor is not an improper appeal to authority. Improper appeals to authority are those that cite an authority’s expertise in one area to support their position on another. For example, saying that 33 churches oppose this bill would be improper: churches are not authorities on open access, scientific publishing, or scientific study.

    When a whole ton of scientists are willing to step forward and say “this requirement will negatively affect scientific research”, that is a bunch of experts speaking about their area of expertise. We should pay attention. It’s telling that while the majority of scientists haven’t come out against of this bill, none that I can find are publicly supporting it. So far as I can tell, every scientist that is willing to make a public statement one way or the other is strongly opposing these publishing restrictions.

  13. Jeigh says:

    Conyers, now that they got your wife, they’re coming to getcha! You and Jefferson of New Orleans can spend some quality time together!

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