Scouting expedition: How Sunlight’s newest tool can make you a better watchdog


Got an issue you care about? A bill you need to track? Can't afford to hire your own team of lobbyists? No problem.

Sunlight Foundation's newest tool, Scout, allows you to keep tabs on Congress, the federal government's regulators and (drum roll, please) all 50 state legislatures at once. It's as easy as entering a search term and pushing a button. Want to keep tabs on future activities? Just enter your email address and Scout will send you alerts every time your term is mentioned in Congress, state legislation or the Federal Register. There's a five-minute video tutorial embedded on Scout's website. For those who have further questions, we're hosting a webinar next week.Scout logo

Here at the Sunlight Reporting group, we've been having fun experimenting with the latest weapon in our transparency arsenal. Below are some samples of how we've used the tool and what we've turned up so far. Here's hoping it gives you some ideas for digging on your own.

Below, we've also included an embed of the five-minute tutorial on Scout that's on it's home page. Let us know how you like the tool, if it helped you in your work and whether you have any ideas for improvements.

Happy Scouting!

Echo chamber? Members broadcasting industry message 

The arrival of hurricane season has prompted a flurry of statements during the last two weeks from House members on the importance of broadcast communications during emergency situations. Some members further urged that mobile phones be equipped with radio technology so that emergency information can still be communicated even when power is down.

The language these lawmakers used was strikingly similar to radio ads sponsored by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) in a campaign launched last year to promote radio-enabled mobile devices.

Called “Radio Rocks My Phone,” it sought to counter the Creativity and Innovation Resolution, introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. last year. The legislation, stalled in a subcommittee, urged Congress not to require broadcast radio tuners in mobile phones, arguing that it obstructs manufacturers’ intellectual property rights.

Using Scout, Sunlight Foundation’s newest tool for tracking terms or legislation in Congress, state legislatures and the Federal Registe, we found two similar speeches made by Rep. Todd Young, R-Ind., and Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, under the keyword “Internet.” The similar phrases are in italics.

"Back in March, a violent tornado ripped through a 49-mile stretch of my southern Indiana district. It leveled entire towns, did millions of dollars in damage, and took numerous lives. The death toll probably would have been higher were it not for the early warnings to seek shelter so many received by radio. In the aftermath of the storm, with no power or TV or Internet and virtually no cell service, radio instructed Hoosiers where to find first aid, food, and shelter,” said Young.

Poe's version: “Mr. Speaker, my congressional district in southeast Texas is right in Hurricane Alley. When Katrina, Rita, Humberto, Gustav, and Ike struck with all their fury, people were left in the dark with no Internet or cell service, but local TV and radio reporters were still on the air telling folks what they needed to know.”

Thirteen other representatives also voiced their similar support: Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., Rep. Andre Carson, D-Ind., Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Calif., Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., Joe Wilson, R-S.C., Hansen Clarke, D-Mich., and Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, at least 10 of these members received a total of more than $19,000 in contributions from NAB in this election cycle alone, including Carson, Bachus, McCarthy, Clarke and Sewell. These five lawmakers explicitly voiced support for radio-equipped mobile devices.

-Jake Harper and Kat Lucero


Unhealthy ties? Pharma in the Senate

When Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., and Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., spoke out against an amendment that sought to lower prescription costs, research using Scout showed, by facilitating the online purchase of Canadian drugs, they focused almost exclusively on the danger it could pose to the American people.

What they didn’t mention was that the bill posed a financial threat to the U.S. pharmaceutical industry – an industry upon which both senators rely heavily for their campaign financing.

The amendment, which was proposed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was rejected by the Senate, 54 to 43. Scout, Sunlight Foundation’s new keyword-tracking tool, helped us pinpoint some of the leading opponents of the measure: Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., all spoke in opposition to the amendment on the Senate floor. During the past year, all of these senators have also received notable campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry.

Thus far in 2012, both Enzi and Carper have relied on pharmaceutical companies as one of their top campaign contributors. Since January, Enzi has received more than $375,000 in donations from pharmaceuticals/health products and Carper more than $348,000. This year, Enzi’s top ten donors include Abbot Lab (No. 1 with $41,000), Amgen (No. 3 with $34,500) and Astrazeneca (No. 6 with $30,500). Two major pharmaceutical companies are among Carper's top donors: Astrazeneca has given him $61,800, and Pfizer, $33,400.

Mikulski and Lautenberg have also received significant contributions from the pharmaceutical industry. Just in this year, Mikulski has received $268,621 while Lautenberg’s pharmaceutical contributions weigh in at $163,400.

–Becca Heller


(Electoral) College boards

I've been an Electoral College geek ever since this quaint institution upended my plans for Thanksgiving with my family in 2000. Those among us of a Certain Age might recall that was the year when the presidential election went into overtime, forcing a raft of political reporters to find their turkey and trimmings in Tallahassee, Fla., in between press conferences by duelling septugenarians Warren Christopher (the champion for Democrat Al Gore, who won the popular vote but lost the White House) James Baker (the champion for Republican George W. Bush, who lost the popular vote but … you know the rest).

There have been attempts to get rid of the Electoral College since well before that controversial contest, but none have ever gotten anywhere because it's hard to pass the necessary Constitutional amendment.

This year, opponents are taking a novel tack and Scout makes it easy to track their progress. An organization called National Popular Vote is trying to get states representing a majority of the Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency — 270 — to enact legislation commiting to give their votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote. Not everyone thinks this is a good idea.  But it has picked up some bipartisan support and the backing of state legislatures representing 132 Electoral College votes as of the date of this posting.

Will this year's presidential race generate more interest in upending the Electoral College? Because this is an issue that could prompt action at the federal or state level, Scout is an ideal tool for tracking it. Simply do what I did: Set up an alert for Electoral College in Scout and you'll get an email every time the term turns up in state or congressional legislation. 

–Kathy Kiely


Political ad file watch: Targeting searches

Anyone who has covered government long enough quickly learns the fine art of obfuscatory language: tax bills are "revenue enhancers." Cuts in programs are "enhancements." That sort of thing. So to use Scout most effectively, sometimes it's helpful to use the fuzz-speak – er, I mean, terms of art — in your search.

Right now, as part of our effort to get information about political advertisements put online, the Sunlight Foundation is watching the progress — or lack thereof — of the Federal Communications Commission's ruling that major network affiliates in the top 50 markets have to put their "public files," which include information on the ad buyers, cost and placement,  online.  To make sure we find out as soon as the Office of Management and Budget decides whether to go ahead with the rule, I've set up an alert using the exact bureaucratic jargon from the FCC's order: "enhanced disclosure requirements." 

–Kathy Kiely


Tracking the battle over financial re-regulation

The Dodd-Frank financial reform law was more than 2,300 pages long and set into motion 221 rulemakings at federal agencies. SCOUT provides a way to help monitor the agencies that are implementing it and the Congress that is trying to amend, revise, roll back and repeal it, not to mention speechify about it.

Thanks to the state legislature tracking feature, we can also see that lobbying related to the bill extends beyond the nation’s capital. For example, both Rhode Island and Massachusetts have legislation pending to the Congo conflict minerals section of the new law, that requires companies to track certain minerals mined in Africa in forced-labor settings when they use them in their products. A number of states appear to legislation related to surplus line insurance. A resolution filed in Kentucky would urge Congress to restore the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated banking from investment. All these provide possible leads for investigation.

–Nancy Watzman


Want to learn more about how to use Scout yourself? Watch the tutorial: