Greetings and welcome to a new blog that will explore the often mysterious workings of Washington, DC through the lens of money in politics. I’m calling this “dollarocracy” because that’s what I think our American form of government has turned into. Money all too often gets better represented in Washington than people do, and that’s what this blog is going to look at in the weeks and months ahead.
First a word about the background I bring to this. I’ve been tracking money in politics professionally since 1985, first as a journalist in Alaska looking at the state legislature and governor’s races, then moving in 1988 to Washington, DC, where I started tracking Congress, and later the presidential races, for the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. I spent 15 years at CRP and more days, nights and weekends than I care to remember actually digging inside the Federal Election Commission’s database of campaign contributions, cleaning up inconsistent data and coding contributions by industry and interest group. After a while that kind of research gets into your blood. It’s fun to do and I confess to taking home my work on many occasions for an after-hours round of “recreational coding.”
When you track money and politics for that long, you begin to develop a sixth sense for recognizing repeatable patterns – some of them seen at every level of government, some peculiar to Washington. In this blog, I’ll be sharing what I’ve gleaned over those years and applying it to the current state of Congress and the upcoming elections.
There’s another side to the blog that I want to lay out right from the start, because it too will color my comments in the months ahead. In May and June of last year, I took off on a 50-day road trip across US Route 50, from Sacramento, California to Ocean City, Maryland, hoping to explore the 50-50 split in American politics. All along the way I talked with people I met about the current state of our political system, what they expected from their representatives and what they thought they were getting.
The original plan was to put it all into a book, but that seems to have fallen through and the window of opportunity for that is drawing to a close. So instead I’ll use what I learned from that road trip and thread it into the subjects I’ll be covering here.
One of the most important things I learned from the people I talked to along Route 50, by the way, was that the great majority of Americans – whether they’re Democrats, Republicans, independents or completely alienated from politics – have serious complaints about the quality of representation they’re getting from their elected officials. Over and over again people told me they didn’t expect much from the politicians they sent to Washington, and the most important thing those politicians could do is listen – really listen – to the folks back home.
They had a sense that whatever the need of the people back home, something happens to elected officials when they go off to that strange world inside the Washington Beltway. Well I’ve lived inside the beltway and outside the beltway, and I can tell you they’re right. That too is something we’ll explore here.
Finally, you should know that I’m approaching this subject from quite a distance. Though I spent plenty of years inside the Washington Beltway, I now live about as far away from it as I can get – in a small town on the Oregon coast. While the rest of the Sunlight staff is based in DC, and while I certainly visit from time to time, I think that cross-country perspective is a healthy buffer between me and the group-think that often suffuses the air in DC. And while we’re disclosing things, let me tell you that while I haven’t pulled the lever for too many Republicans over the years – one I can think of, and one I’d have been happy to vote for even though I didn’t – this column is going to be as free of partisan tilt as I can possibly make it.
The last thing I want to do is preach to any choir, or to make anyone feel that their opinions and comments are not welcome here.
If you agree with me, great. If you don’t, that’s fine too. But I do hope this particular blog will be heavier on facts than opinions, more useful and educational than polemic, and that equally interesting to everybody, whether they’re on the far left, far right, or the great American middle.
This blogging, I confess, is new to me. But I have a feeling it’s going to be a whale of a lot of fun.