New non-partisan, non-profit organization announces launch of Congresspedia website that creates the “citizens’ encyclopedia” of Congress
Announces “transparency grants” to create dynamic databases to be used and accessed by the media and public
New bipartisan poll finds overwhelming support from the public for sweeping reforms that promote greater transparency in Congress
Washington, DC — Taking the famous words of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “Sunlight is the best of disinfectants,” as a guiding principle, the Sunlight Foundation launched its efforts to harness the transformative power of the Internet to bring transparency and accountability to Congress and its members.
The new non-partisan, non-profit organization unveiled key initiatives today including a Congress-focused website based on the Wikipedia model called Congresspedia; the findings of a bipartisan poll by Celinda Lake and Ed Goeas on public attitudes towards corruption in Congress; and its first round of grants to encourage good government organizations to make more effective use of the Internet to promote transparency in Congress and empower citizens to be the best watchdogs of their own elected representatives.
“Sunlight’s approach is unique,” said Ellen Miller, Executive Director of the Sunlight Foundation. “We plan to use the revolutionary power of the Internet to expose corruption in Congress and make its members more accountable to the people they are elected to serve—the American public. By creating new tools for citizen investigation and funding other organizations that can bring the information online for everyone to access, Sunlight will ensure that members of Congress can no longer hide their corrupt practices in plain view.”
Michael Klein, Chairman of the Sunlight Foundation, said that the organization wants to give citizens the ability to be their own best Congressional watchdogs and put more tools into the hands of journalists making it easier for them to cover the story.
“Our goal with Congresspedia and our other grants is to help reengage citizens in the political process by giving them the ability to see and thus chill the corrosive power of influence peddling on the Congress,” Klein said. “With Sunlight’s help, the American public will finally get the responsive, open and accountable Congress that they are entitled to.”
Sunlight Survey Results on Congress
Current public opinion about Congress is at a near record low.
According to a bipartisan poll conducted by Celinda Lake and Ed Goeas for Sunlight, there is broad support among voters from both parties and independents for significant reform of lobbying and disclosure laws in Washington.
In the Lake-Goeas poll, support ranged from 60 to 75 percent in favor of specific reform measures, including requiring candidates to publicly disclose on the Internet the names of the registered lobbyists who raise money for their campaigns.
The poll found that 75 percent of respondents favored creating an independent ethics commission that would review complaints, conduct investigations, and report on unethical conduct by lawmakers and their staffs, a proposal that the Senate rejected in March 2006.
Some 65 percent supported requiring lawmakers to disclose each week on the Internet all their contacts and correspondence with regulatory agencies seeking action that benefits their campaign contributors.
Bringing transparency to the actions of members on behalf of their campaign contributors in the legislative arena was also popular with respondents; 65 percent also favored a reform that would require lawmakers to file a report, available on the Internet, on any legislation or amendment they have introduced that would benefit any of their campaign contributors.
One of the new tools designed to give citizens and media the ability to root out corruption and bring transparency to the system will be the Congresspedia website.
As the "citizens' encyclopedia" of Congress, the Congresspedia website will compile extensive information on every current member of Congress, warts and all. The site is a joint project between the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Media and Democracy, which also publishes SourceWatch.org, an encyclopedia of people, issues and groups shaping the public agenda.
Congresspedia will be edited by Conor Kenny, the co-editor of SourceWatch.org, and will accept submissions from everyone, including members of Congress and their staffs.
“Congresspedia is designed to become the repository of all information pertinent to Congress and its members,” said Sheldon Rampton, research director of the Center for Media and Democracy and co-creator of the Congresspedia. “Finally, the media and the public will have a constantly updated, ever-evolving resource on what members of Congress have done and are doing on their behalf. We urge everyone who cares about the kind of leadership they have in Congress to contribute to the site.”
Sunlight also announced the first of a series of Transparency Grants to organizations dedicated to using the Internet and information technology to promote transparency and openness in government. These grants go beyond the traditional, single subject public disclosure database..
The projects use the Web 2.0 model to ensure that everyone—the media, bloggers, citizens and good government groups—will be able to sift, share and combine information in new ways that are useful to them.
Sunlight Transparency Grants will establish access through the Internet to an array of searchable databases key to understanding the quid pro quo practices that concern so many about Congress, including:
• Political contributions;
• Lobbyist reports;
• Personal financial disclosure reports by lawmakers;
• Travel records;
• Fundraising and spending by 527 organizations;
• Government contracts and grants; and
• Tracking the revolving door of lawmakers, staff and lobbyists between Capitol Hill and K Street.
In the future, as a result of Sunlight’s efforts, anyone—journalists, bloggers, citizens—will be able to go online and discover, to give one example, how many lawmakers own stock in companies that have legislation pending before Congress.
The first grants were awarded to veteran public interest groups, the Center for Responsive Politics, OMB Watch, the Center for Media and Democracy and the Project for Government Oversight for the following:
• Center for Media and Democracy: $95,000 grant for one year to develop Congresspedia.
• Center for Responsive Politics: $325,000 grant for three years to create databases on lobbyists, 527s, personal financial disclosure, travel and to expand existing campaign finance databases.
• OMB Watch: $235,000 grant for three years to oversee and direct the exploratory work for creating an “accountability matrix” and to develop a database of government grants and contracts.
• Project on Government Oversight (POGO): $10,000 one-time grant to support their reporting and blogging work on the “revolving door” between the government and the private sector.
“This first set of Transparency Grants will help us leverage the tremendous resources of these organizations and make their work more readily accessible and usable to the media and, most importantly, citizens,” said Miller. “We will continue to search for organizations and ideas that bring the everyday dealings of Congress under public scrutiny.”
Miller announced two additional web-based projects to assist media and citizen watchdogs in the fight for more transparency for lawmakers.
One is an experiment in “distributed” journalism, led by veteran journalist Bill Allison, which will provide ordinary citizens with the tools of investigative journalism to allow them, as “citizen muckrakers,” to hold their elected representatives accountable.
The other is the debut of a series of online interactive tutorials, created by pioneering money and politics researcher Larry Makinson that will teach citizens everything they need to know about how to become a Congressional watchdog.
The Sunlight Foundation also stressed the importance of the public’s view that despite recent highly publicized scandals, no one political party has a monopoly on corruption.
“In order to the fix the system and change the attitude of Congress and its lawmakers, Sunlight must be relentless in its pursuit of influence peddling regardless of party,” said Klein. “This is the only way we can bring about the accountability that citizens expect of their government and its leaders.”
About the Sunlight Foundation
The mission of the Sunlight Foundation is to use the transformative power of the Internet and new information technology to enable citizens to learn more about what Congress and their elected representatives are doing, and thus help reduce corruption, ensure greater transparency and accountability by government, and foster public trust in the vital institutions of democracy.