Unraveling the Dollarocracy

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This is my last Dollarocracy blog, at least for a while. It’s the end of my full-time stint at the Sunlight Foundation; I’ll now be pulling back to occasional work on specific projects, like keeping up with the questions on the Watchdogging 101 site.

I confess to thinking of this web space I’ve had not so much as a blog, but more like an old-fashioned newspaper column. My beat has been the intersection of money and politics and I’ve tried to illuminate how the never-ending appetite for campaign cash has profoundly altered the shape of our American democracy.

Love may make the world go round, but in Washington it’s money that’s propels things. Nobody gets to Congress – let alone the White House – without raising prodigious quantities of it. Once here, they never stop raising it. Washington fundraisers are as much an institution – and, alas, more common – than vigorous debate on the floors of the House and Senate.

As the capital shifts focus now from the mid-term elections to the 2008 presidential contest, we’ll see another familiar reminder. Prospective candidates are handicapped by the media, the analysts and the punditry not by their speaking skills or great ideas, but by how “serious” they are as candidates. Translation: have they raised enough to be competitive?

In short, money suffuses our politics from top to bottom. Those that have it, and actively invest it in political contributions, get a lot better representation in Washington than those who don’t. They may not win every battle, but they win enough of them to make the investment clearly worth continuing. In a lot of industries, political contributions are simply a cost of doing business.

For the nation as a whole, the system is less benign. Does it really benefit all of us when mileage standards are relaxed for the auto industry, when tax breaks go to the oil companies, or when pharmaceutical manufacturers are assured of being paid the full retail price for the drugs they sell to Medicare?

Illuminating the patterns of money in politics – both the raw data and its effect on elections and legislation – has been a pursuit of mine for more than 20 years now. It’s what first brought me to Washington in the summer of 1988, when I first hooked up with Ellen Miller, who was then running a four-person staff at the Center for Responsive Politics.

With Ellen’s guidance, and her prodigious skills at raising funds from foundations, we gradually dug up the facts, presented them in a series of reports and books, and worked with journalists to share both our research techniques and our findings. Our goal then was simply to show what was happening – and to make sure that political reporters saw it too, and wrote about it as they filed their stories.

Eventually we both wandered away from CRP to other endeavors, but we came back together again late last year, as the Sunlight Foundation was being born. For once in her long career with non-profits, Ellen didn’t have to spend half her time raising money. Washington entrepreneur Mike Klein stepped up with the financial means, and wisely he hired Ellen to make it work.

Sunlight has since adopted Ellen’s frenetic style as its own, trying a multitude of different approaches and hoping that a few of them will stick. Ellen also had the good sense to hire a diverse and talented staff, including Bill Allison, one of the best investigative reporters anywhere. Bill’s digging has led to a number of Sunlight scoops, including the details of Dennis Hastert’s profitable land dealings in Illinois.

And then there are the ‘back room boys’ in the Sunlight labs, who work their Web 2.0 magic with widgets and pop-up politicians and other cutting edge tools to make this information come alive on the web. It’s a heady mixture of people and talents, and it’s already done more in less than a year than any of its founders had dared hope. And the momentum is still only beginning.

That’s terrific news for anyone concerned, as I am, that the balance of our democracy has shifted way too far away from the people and way too close to the insiders who’ve parleyed money into power.

Unraveling the dollarocracy – reducing the power of moneyed interests and increasing the power of citizens – is a goal that to me seems more important today than it’s ever been. And more difficult too.

It’s going to take new approaches in exposing hidden corners of influence, and new experiments in engaging ordinary citizens – in short, all the things that Sunlight is currently working on. Some of the ideas will catch on, some won’t. But that’s the nature of experimentation. As any experienced photographer can tell you, the whole idea behind shooting 36 exposures is to get one or two really good ones.

So while I won’t be writing any more blogs here, I’ll keep on reading them. And I’ll keep on tuning in to the website to see what new gadgets and gizmos the guys in the back room have come up with.

I’m enough of a realist – and sometime cynic – to know that it’s an uphill struggle to jiggle the balance of something as big as our American democracy. But I’m enough of an idealist, still, to believe the effort can eventually succeed. In any event, how can we not try?

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