As fundraising for the 2014 congressional contests heats up and filing deadlines loom this week, the Sunlight Foundation is unveiling a new tool - the Real-Time FEC tracker - that will allow users to search, sort, filter and get alerts for campaign finance reports as they land at the Federal Election Commission.
Today the director of Sunlight Labs, Tom Lee, will be speaking at a Sunshine Week event hosted by OpenTheGovernment.org and the Center for American Progress. Tom will evaluate the current state of transparency and the role of technology in advancing open government. He is joined on the second panel by Jennifer LaFleur, the director of Computer-Assisted Reporting at ProPublica, Sheila Krumholz, the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics and Todd Park, the chief technology office at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The day will look at the practical applications of transparency initiatives - a mix of policy and technical considerations. The event is full of familiar faces in the transparency world and will be webcast live with an opportunity for all viewers to submit questions (and on CSPAN).
The panel begins at 12:00 EST - Tune in here.
Everyone's writing about politicians these days -- especially these days -- so Sunlight's developed a tool to help enliven that article, blog post or comment. Our thinking was that when you write about a member of Congress, you should be able to insert contextual information about who funds their campaigns, who gets their earmarks and the like, into a blog post or news article as easily as you can embed a YouTube video. We designed our Politiwidgets to do just that.
We have ten free Politiwidgets that can help you display lawmakers' top campaign contributors, earmarks they have requested, their voting record on any current bill, where their fundraisers are, etc. They are all based on data from groups like the Center for Responsive Politics so you know they're factually correct and contain the very latest information. They’re completely customizable too so you can selected the size and color or each widget. Plus, you never have to refresh the data. We do that for you on the ‘backend’ of your widget daily. If you’re writing about any member of Congress, instead of just putting up the same-old picture of a Representative or Senator, you can use a Politiwidget to give your readers an interactive way to learn more about them, and perhaps do some of their own investigative work.
When the Sunlight Labs created these Politiwidgets, we were challenged by our funder, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, to ensure that 50 websites used them by Election Day (November 2, 2010). Today we have 106 sites that have implemented Politwidgets into their reporting routine!
Sites have used Politiwidgets as a way to easily show information about incumbents in their area such as theAfro-American Newspaper, a news provider in the Baltimore/DC region, on its Afro’s Election 2010 page. WNYMedia used three of our geo-location Politiwidgets on the right rail of their site to show anyone looking at their site their members of Congress' earmarks, contributions and contact information.
In a nutshell, no matter how the widgets have been used, we have doubled our goal of placements for this election cycle. But we feel that we aren't quite done! Sunlight wants our Politiwidgets to become the part of every political blogger’s and reporter’s routine. So go and get more. Really try to work them into your sites in the last few days before the election.
And after this election is completed, we'll be preparing the Politiwidgets for the 112th Congress. We'd love to know what other information you’d like to see. We promise it will be as timely and as accurate as possible.
A Wall Street Journal investigative report revealed yesterday that at least 72 hill staffers “traded shares of companies that their bosses help oversee” in 2008 and 2009. While Congress ponders legislation to ban insider trading (which we wrote about in November 2009), WSJ’s Deal Blog points to transparency rules and searchable databases of lawmakers’ financial disclosures as providing a window into whether insider trading has occurred.
In recent years, there’s been progress on making congressional ethics information available online -- most notably with lobbying disclosure reports -- but there’s a long way to go. In January, we called for all congressional ethics information that’s required to be publicly available to be posted online, including the personal financial disclosure reports that were the foundation of the Wall Street Journal’s reporting.
Currently, the Center for Responsive Politics* and Legistorm spend enormous amounts of time and money accessing and digitizing personal financial disclosure forms. We believe that Congress has the responsibility to make this information available to the public on the Internet in a timely fashion and in machine-readable formats. The Sunlight Foundation issued recommendations on changing the House Rules to do that (among other things).
The personal financial disclosure reports themselves deserve a second look. Congress should reexamine who is required to disclose information, what should be disclosed, and how frequently that disclosure should take place.
As things stand, Members of Congress and certain staff are required to disclose stock transactions, but only once a year on June 15. My colleague Paul Blumenthal suggests that real-time reporting would be beneficial and not too burdensome. He’s right, and there’s more to be done.
For example, residences and loans do not need to be disclosed unless they provide income to a lawmaker. That should be changed. Disclosure of residential and loan information would have shed light on the potential conflict of interest raised by mortgage company Countrywide Financial giving allegedly preferential treatment to lawmakers, which created a big brouhaha last year and triggered a year-long ethics committee investigation. These questionable practices could have been nipped in the bud, or entirely deterred, were they required to be reported.
Additionally, lawmaker assets and debts are reported within very wide ranges. Our Executive Director Ellen Miller suggests that assets and debts should be reported to the penny, but even tightening the reporting ranges, as suggested in the Transparency in Government Act (HR 4983), would be a dramatic improvement.
It’s also worthwhile to consider whether using an earnings threshold to trigger staffer reporting is the best way to go. As we’ve seen in other contexts, sometimes staff salaries are set to avoid reporting requirements. It may be necessary to also look at a staffer’s responsibilities to see whether reporting should be triggered.
Finally, although we’re focusing on the congressional context, we shouldn’t forget that financial disclosures are also filed by members of the executive and judicial branch. It may be time to revisit what they must file and how their reports are publicly disclosed. GAO already has a mandate to conduct a review of financial reporting requirements.
There’s a careful balance that must be struck between transparency and privacy, and a weighing of the burden new rules could impose on government versus the benefits that would accrue to the public. As yesterday’s reporting makes clear, there’s a larger role for transparency to play. Placing the personal financial disclosure reports online, with greater detail and increasing frequency, is a great place to start.
- Note: The Sunlight Foundation has provided grants to the Center for Responsive Politics to maintain their money-in-politics resources, including personal financial disclosures.
It's important we know lobbyists' REAL influence on the people we elect to represent us - and before today, that's not something we could really do.
While yesterday you may have looked up a lobbyist online and seen only that the individual had contributed a couple hundred dollars to a senator, you can now see the entire 'bundle' of contributions around that lobbyist or company which can total in the tens of thousands.
Sunlight and the Center for Responsive Politics have teamed up on a collaborative investigative project that shows never-before-seen "contribution clusters" from outside lobbyists and their health care industry clients to key members of Congress.
We found that Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee and author of the main health care reform bill now being debated in the Senate, was one of the biggest beneficiaries of this one-two punch from lobbyists and the interests they represent. Between January 2007 and July 2009 (the period we studied), Baucus collected contributions from 37 outside lobbyists representing PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry's chief trade association, and from 36 lobbyists who listed drug maker Amgen Inc. among their clients.
In all, 11 major health and insurance firms had their contributions to Baucus boosted through extra donations from 10 or more of their outside lobbyists. (See our visualization and the full list from CRP.)
Nor was Baucus alone—other members also received contributions from the employees, their family members and political action committees of health care firms and from the outside lobbyists that represented them. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., collected lobbyist “bundles” from 14 major health care organizations. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., actually led the list, with 22 organizations—though much of that money was directed at his presidential campaign last year. (see the full list.)
PhRMA and Amgen were the organizations with the most outside lobbyists chipping in with extra contributions. Some 32 members of Congress got money from 10 or more PhRMA lobbyists over the last two-and-a-half years. Amgen's lobbyists did the same for 24 members.
There is no indication that the extra giving by lobbyists was part of a planned effort by the health care firms to solidify their support among key members of Congress. But whether coordinated or not, the newly-found clusters of lobbyist giving clearly illustrate the intensity of the full-court press that the industry is currently waging on Capitol Hill.
The research into the lobbyist-and-client giving was conducted by combining campaign contribution records with reports filed by lobbyists that identified their clients (read more on how we did it; full methodology here). The Center for Responsive Politics has been collecting that data for years, but this was the first time the two databases were combined to identify all cases where outside lobbyists contributed to the same members of Congress as their clients.
Overall, the research found that about 90 percent of the lobbyist donations were given by the lobbyists themselves. Another 10 percent came from members of their immediate families, mainly spouses. Interestingly, about one-third of the contributions were given not to the members’ campaign committees, but to their leadership PACs—separate funds that members control—but that get far less media scrutiny than their reelection campaigns. The leadership PACs also have higher contribution limits, enabling lobbyists to give well beyond the nominal $2,400 limit that applies to campaign committees.
Here are some of the more interesting media mentions of Sunlight and our friends and allies over the past week:
CQ Politics' Richard Rubin reports how House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (N.Y.), already beset by a series of ethics investigations, recently disclosed more than $500,000 in previously unreported assets. Rubin notes that earlier this year, Bill Allison, Sunlight's senior fellow, found similar problems with Rangel’s previous disclosure reports. According to Bill’s analysis, Rangel failed to report purchases, sales or his ownership of assets at least 28 times since 1978 on his personal financial disclosure forms. Assets worth between $239,026 and $831,000 appeared and disappeared with no disclosure of when they were acquired, how long they were held or when they were sold, as House rules require. “I understand being sloppy, missing an asset once or twice,” Bill said. “But what this shows is he doesn’t take financial disclosure seriously. How else can you year after year have these inaccuracies? It doesn’t look like there is a lot of care put it into compared to other members. It makes people suspicious when all of a sudden you double your wealth. Without knowing how a member accumulated that wealth, people are going to ask questions.” The New York Times' David Kocieniewski reported on Rangel's discrepancies and quotes Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, saying the New York lawmaker’s haphazard approach to his finances had undermined his credibility in Congress. “Sloppy bookkeeping is not a valid excuse for a sophisticated member of Congress who is chairman of the committee that handles complex financial issues like the tax code,” she said. Glenn Reynolds, at his popular "Instapundit" blog, has followed the various Rangel stories and picks up on Bill's Real Time Investigations post responding to the CQ Politics report.
Halimah Abdullah, with McClatchy Newspapers, reported on a study conducted by the Center for Public Integrity that found more than half the $1.1 million in campaign contributions the Democratic Party's Blue Dog Coalition received so far this year came from the pharmaceutical, health care and health insurance industries. The report cites Center for Responsive Politics data to show how, on average, Blue Dog Democrats net $62,650 more from the health sector than other Democrats, while hospitals and nursing homes also favor them, giving, respectively, $5,680 and $5,550 more. Abdullah used Party Time data to show how coalition members are raising campaign cash at fundraisers. McClatchy papers across the country ran the story.
Russia Today reported on ProPublica's and Sunlight's Foreign Lobbying Influence Tracker, which allows anyone to search the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) to quickly learn what governments are lobbying our government and about what. "It's amazing how much lobbyist really do have an impact on public policy," Bill Allison is quoted as saying. "You can follow lobbying campaigns online and see policies changing." The whole interview can be listened to here. The blog of the Legal Times also highlighted the Foreign Lobbying Influence Tracker, which they write "creates ways to search those records by legislator contacted, country, lobbying firm, client and issue. Previously, the filings were only available online via a Department of Justice Web site as non-searchable .pdf files."
MAPLight.org launched Money Near Votes, "a new government transparency tool making it easy to track special-interest contributions to legislators given within a month, a week, or a day of when a vote occurred." This new tool promises a new level of transparency by honing in on the role special interests play in shaping public policy. "Never before have these 'well-timed' campaign donations been highlighted in such an exhaustive, easy-to-locate format," MAPLight asserts.
Here are some of the more interesting media mentions of Sunlight and our friends and allies over the past week:
The Associated Press used data from the Center for Responsive Politics Chevron Corp. spent more than $12.8 million lobbying the federal government in the first half of this year, in an attempt to influence pending climate-change legislation and taxes targeting oil producers. So far this year, the oil giant has almost matched the $12.9 million they spent lobbying in all of 2008.
The Foreign Lobbying Influence Tracker, the searchable database that allows users to easily follow the money and connect the dots within records of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) database, launched this week. ProPublica and Sunlight teamed up on the project that allows anyone to quickly learn what foreign governments are lobbying whom, how often and about what. Alex Knott with CQ Politics covered the launch and quotes Ellen saying how information contained on the site shows how effective lobbyists can be. "While it brings needed transparency to these filings, it raises the question of what lobbyists for health care, energy and other interests -- who disclose far less information -- are up to in Washington," she said. In this morning's "In the Loop" column, The Washington Post's Al Kamen highlighted the Tracker. "What? You don't have a registered foreign agent working for you?" he asked. "Everyone's got one. Even the Dalai Lama!"
Katherine Mangu-Ward, senior editor of Reason magazine, writing at The Wall Street Journal, penned a column titled "Transparency Chic," where she highlights several efforts by private groups and individuals to pry open government information. "Tech celebs like Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales have flocked to the Sunlight Foundation, which uses the Internet to improve meaningful access to government," she wrote.
ABC News' David Wright reported on the health care debate and includes a quote from Bill Allison, Sunlight's senior fellow, about the special interests attempts to influence the health care debate. Bill explained who's working for who: "Insurance companies battling providers. Drug companies battling insurance companies. Hospitals going to war against nursing homes. All kinds of institutions are looking to protect their interests."
McClatchy Newspapers editorialized about how the Obama administration is continuing some of the opaque practices of the Bush administration despite promises to the contrary. They cite Ellen's blog post from last week about the need for the White House to list presidential signing statements on its Web site in an easy-to-find manner as an example. A number of McClatchy papers ran the editorial, including The (Colorado Springs, Colo.) Gazette.
Last week, we blogged about the Digital Democracy Project, a free Web-based game for high school social studies classes. And I wanted to add how happy I am that we are able to provide this new and exciting learning tool to high school teachers and their students.
By playing the game, students will learn how to research OpenSecrets.org, the site that houses all of the Center for Responsive Politics' databases, and Sunlight's own OpenCongress.org. The game is meant to be fun, but its also designed to help students learn how to use government data and the tools built to open up that data. Sample questions and their answers can be viewed here. A worksheet (pdf) exists for teachers to have their students complete, assisting students to consider technology’s influence on government. Students are also encouraged to conduct real investigations through Transparency Corps.
Sunlight partnered with the folks at Global Networked-Intelligence Contests to create the Digital Democracy Contest. Because of an award from the MacArthur Foundation we're able to provide the contest free to high school social studies classes.
Here are some of the more interesting media mentions of Sunlight and our friends and allies over the past week:
Jonathan D. Salant and Lizzie O’Leary with Bloomberg.com have an article showing how there are six lobbyists attempting to influence the health care reform debate for each of the 535 members of the House and Senate. That figure is three times the number of lobbyists registered to lobby on defense. They used data from the Center for Responsive Politics to illustrate how every one of the 10 biggest lobbying firms by revenue is attempting to influence the debate on behalf of some interest or another, spending $263.4 million on lobbying during the first six months of 2009 alone. They quote Bill Allison, Sunlight's senior fellow, “Whenever you have a big piece of legislation like this, it’s like ringing the dinner bell for K Street.” Multiple other outlets picked up the article and Bill's quote, including Kate Barrett at ABC News. And David Schechter, CNN's senior national editor, wrote a column about the lobbying feeding frenzy surrounding the health care reform debate. He lists Sunlight and OpenSecrets.org as good sources for information on the "lobbying largesse."
In light of the increasingly heated debate over how to reform health care policy, Lisa Stone at BlogHer wrote about the new partnership between BlogHer and OpenCongress, the joint project between the Participatory Politics Foundation and Sunlight, to provide a forum to move the discourse in a more civil and positive direction. They have asked Nancy Watzman, Sunlight's director of the Party Time project, to share her investigations on their site multiple times a week. Be sure to check their coverage out, which starts today.
Writing at Forbes, Tim O'Reilly, founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, wrote about what he calls the promise of innovation provided by Government 2.0. And he asked, "How does government itself become an open platform that allows people inside and outside government to innovate?" O'Reilly points to the Apps for America contests as an example of the "virtuous circle of citizen innovation" using the information made available through the White House's Data.gov. PC World published a piece by Grant Gross with IDB News Service on how the contest is asking developer to use the raw data released on Data.gov and elsewhere to demonstrate the power of data-publishing and number-crunching services. Gross discussed with Clay Johnson, Sunlight Labs' director, about how the Labs works to assist traditional and citizen journalists with investigative reporting. "As the Obama administration begins to release more data, there aren't enough fingers on keyboards here in Sunlight Labs to handle all this," Clay said. "Has the Obama administration succeeded in making more government data available? You're talking to the guy with the most unquenchable thirst for that, who will never say that they're successful."
The Boston Globe's "Political Notebook" column makes note of two of Sunlight's closest friends, Taxpayers for Common Sense and the Center for Responsive Politics, teaming up to create a database showing campaign cash to congressional lawmakers and the earmarks that they requested. Taxpayers is providing the data showing more than 20,000 earmarks totaling more than $35 billion. And CRP has detailed $227 million in campaign donations and lobbying expenses. The article quotes Ryan Alexander, Taxpayer's president, “Earmarks and campaign contributions are part and parcel of the pay-to-play system that permeates Washington...Companies making thousands of dollars in campaign contributions get millions of earmarked taxpayer dollars from lawmakers." The database can be searched here.
Speaking of earmarks, Greenwire's Anne C. Mulkern wrote about how lawmakers, while crafting legislation meant to finance the Department of Energy, inserted $75.2 million in earmarks for research at schools and universities in their home states and districts. Mulkern quotes Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, questioning the use of earmarks to fund research. "The gold standard in academic research is peer-reviewed analysis," Ellis said. "Picking the winners and losers based on geography and not who has conducted the best research is a recipe for wasting precious taxpayer dollars." The New York Times republished Mulkern's article.
FederalNewsRadio's Max Cacas reported on the Project on Government Oversight's (POGO) new guide, "The Art of Congressional Oversight: A Users Guide to Doing it Right." The 83-page volume contains insights into how to be a successful congressional committee investigator, Cacas writes. POGO put on paper what they've been teaching over the past three years via monthly training sessions, free lunchtime skill-building seminars designed to educate Hill staffers about their rights, responsibilities and powers working in the realm of congressional oversight. The trainings and book are part of POGO's effort to teach congressional staffers about the constitutionally-mandated jobs of Congress -- providing oversight over the cabinet-level agencies and other organizations within the executive branch.
Special note: As National Journal's "Hotline On Call" pointed out on their list of upcoming weekend public policy programming, Ellen Miller, Sunlight's executive director, will be appearing on C-SPAN's "Communicators" program Saturday evening at 6:30 p.m. (EST).