OpenGov Voices: How NRDC Action Fund used Sunlight data to track energy sector influence

Heather Taylor-Miesle, director of the NRDC Action Fund

By now everyone knows the line, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” That’s fine for Vegas, but at the NRDC Action Fund we don’t think Washington, D.C., should operate like this. That’s why the NRDC Action Fund, a 501(c)(4) whose mission is to build political support for taking action on climate change, used Sunlight Foundation data in a new way to track how members of Congress vote on energy and environment issues – and the campaign contributions they get from the energy sector.

Thanks to the phenomenal data from Sunlight, we created, which displays two things side-by-side:

  1. The amount of money every senator and representative has received in contributions from polluting companies; and
  2. The voting record of every senator and representative on key votes that relate to clean energy, fossil fuels and climate change.

The website connects the data to social media tools so that people can tweet their member of Congress to inquire about the money they’ve taken from the oil and gas, electric utilities and coal mining sectors, as well as the votes they have cast (or even just to let them know someone is paying attention).

Before we created, this was all public information that the average citizen could look up – in theory. You can go to one website to look up campaign contribution records. And you can go to another website to look up voting records. And then you can choose to open up Twitter and send a message to an elected official. But we figured most people don’t have time for this kind of research, so we worked with Sunlight to make a one-stop shop.

A screenshot of (Image Credit: NRDC Action Fund)

With climate change becoming one of the biggest and most defining issues of our time, our hope is that this new tool sheds light on some of the realities of politics inside the Beltway. Once more people are aware of exactly how much influence certain sectors try to wield with their campaign contributions (in actual dollars and in real votes), then true action toward change can begin.

If Washington, D.C., wanted to adopt a city slogan about making government open and accountable to all people, that’s something we could get behind. After all, the worst thing possible for our health and our planet would be for D.C. to operate like Vegas.

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