Find out if Congress is a Family Business

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Rep. Richard Pombo did it with his wife and his brother. In his 2004 presidential campaign, Sen. Joseph Lieberman did it with his children. Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay did it with his wife and daughter. All have hired relatives to work on their campaigns, paying them salaries out of special interest contributions. Our system of campaign finance is often called “legalized bribery,” in which special interests donate tens of thousands of dollars to a member’s campaign committee in the hopes of advancing their own issues. Some members of Congress, by hiring their spouses, in effect use their campaign treasury to supplement their own bank accounts. The practice is legal, disclosed in obscure corners of campaign finance reports, and rarely mentioned by those who cover campaigns. And now citizen journalists can investigate it!

I’m proud to announce that the Sunlight Foundation is launching a new distributed research and reporting project that will enable citizen journalists to find out how many members of the House of Representatives have their spouses on the payroll. Our simple, user-friendly six step tool (developed by our ultra-cool Sunlight Labs division) lets users investigate and record their results in just three minutes.

Now, there’s two reasons we’re launching this. First, we want to know how many members of the House are paying their spouses from campaign funds, and how much they’re paying them, and what they’re paying them for. (I should note we’ll eventually be adding a Senate version of this project too.) It would take a single reporter weeks to amass that kind of information, but with a distributed reporting model, if we have enough volunteers taking on a handful of members each, we can get this done in a matter of days. At the end of the process, we’ll have a sentence that reads, “Of 435 Members of the House of Representatives, 63 have hired their spouses to work their campaigns, paying them $1.5 million from campaign contributions in the 2006 campaign cycle.” We’ll be able to point to those members who pay their spouses the most money, uncovering information that right now isn’t available to the public. We might even find some outrageous excesses.

Our second reason for launching this is that we want to start developing tools that allow online citizen journalists to research and record information in a way that allows third parties–say, readers–to string together that research and see patterns. So this effort (elegant and cool as the design is thanks to Sunlight Labs) is really just embryonic; it’s a first experiment in thinking about what those tools might ultimately look like. So obviously, your feedback on this is not only welcome, but encouraged.

So this experiment will continue. Not only will we add a Senate spouse project, but down the road we’ll also launch a series of distributed research projects that will harness the talents and skills of members of the public to provide greater citizen oversight of Congress. Future projects will investigate children of members who work for political campaigns, relatives of members who work for political action committees and for fundraising firms, and relatives of members who are registered to lobby Congress.

Working together, I’m hoping we can develop a citizen journalist news room of volunteers digging into members and thinking about how to do it better–how to use the Web to bring greater accountability to members of Congress. That’s the goal for the medium term, and I’ll have more to say about that next week. For the short term though, let’s see how many members we can investigate, and what we find out.

Finally, let me add this last bit: I am mindful of how difficult and thankless it must be to be a spouse of a member of Congress, or any other politician for that matter. I would imagine that many of them might prefer not to have the exposure that a high profile spouse brings. I am certain from the outset that we’ll find that the majority of the campaigns we look at do not involve the member’s spouse professionally in campaigns. Our goal is to use public disclosure documents to find those who do, and to find those members who make politics a family business.

Have at it, and enjoy!

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