The mere fact that Larry Lessig, Stanford law school professor, IP visionary, and all-around Web cult hero, is considering a run for Congress -- one of the least change-oriented and least visionary institutions in America -- is a sign of just how far the tech movement has come since Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mitch Kapor, and Michael Dell started their careers. Coming on the heels of last month’s opening of Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)’s first Washington office, a Lessig run would underscore the political arrival of Silicon Valley. [Ed. note: Shortly after this article was posted, Larry Lessig announced that he is not running for Congress.]
“It is rare to have the chance to live in times where there’s the opportunity for fundamental change,” explains Larry Lessig in a video on his new lessig08.org Website. “This is one of those times.” Indeed it appears that as this historic change-focused election shapes up, one of the most interesting races may appear far below the presidential level -- that of Lessig's bid to fill the House seat in California’s 12th District opened by the death of Congressman Tom Lantos.
The challenge, of course, that Lessig hopes to address, and yet the one that more than anything would challenge his happiness on Capitol Hill, is that Washington hasn’t yet caught up with Moore’s Law of doubling in size every two years -- Washington still operates on a long-time horizon.
Washington is set up to discourage innovation. No lobbyist’s job in Washington is to encourage the free exchange of ideas, the cause that Lessig has devoted his professional career to advancing. Corporations and associations see Capitol Hill as one more place to secure their own futures and seek competitive advantage. The truth of the matter is, given the scale at which Washington works -- where a single contract can reap billions -- the tens of millions spent on lobbying is a smart investment. The rapid growth of Congressional earmarks and pork (perhaps the only aspect of Washington that could be argued as obeying Moore’s Law) in recent years has only strengthened that truth.
As former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich wrote last year in his smart and insightful book, Supercapitalism, “So many of the battles that on the surface seem to concern public policy are, on closer inspection, matters of mundane competitive advantage in pursuit of corporate profit.”
Could Lessig succeed in changing Congress's culture? He’s promised to resign if he proves unsuccessful after two terms. He certainly won’t make much of an impact as a first-term congressman -- there are 20-something staffers on the Hill with more power than a freshman representative. Lessig would be hard-pressed to show much, even as a second-term congressman.
It’s hard to overstress to outsiders the geologic time-frame at which Congress operates, far removed from a focus on the next quarter or the next fiscal year -- focused, if on anything, on merely the next election. It takes a Herculean effort by the Congress just to pass an entire federal budget once a year. For something to happen within five years in Washington is the equivalent of next-day delivery. Ten years wouldn’t be surprising. Twenty might be more the norm.
I followed tech/politics pioneer Joe Trippi’s Twitter feed this weekend as he met with Lessig in San Francisco to consider the congressional bid and thought that I’d be surprised if a single member of Congress could define the term “microblogging,” even though Republican Minority Leader John Boehner “personally” uses the service.
When I was researching my book on technology and politics, The First Campaign, I ran across Dave Hughes, a colorful former Army leader who for nearly 30 years was one of the original online politics pioneers. “Washington is a great soggy log floating down the Potomac with a bunch of ants who think they’re steering,” he told me. “This is a grassroots nation. Anything that’s worth a damn in this country starts on the grassroots level. In a future shock, accelerated-change society, by the time it gets to Washington, it’s already obsolete.”
In a way, I believe Hughes is right. It’s clear today that Washington’s current model is obsolete. Change must happen if our political system is to adapt to the modern world. The big question this week, as Lessig weighs entering the race, shouldn’t be whether Lessig would run but whether he could stand the place once he got there -- and thus might be happier organizing for change from the outside. There’s one legal term that Lessig, a law professor, should ponder: Caveat Emptor.
— Garrett M. Graff, Editor at large at Washingtonian magazine