Heading to IRE 2015? Learn how Sunlight tools can improve your money in politics reporting

Sunlight’s on the ground at IRE 2015! (Image credit: Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc.)

My colleagues Ryan Sibley, Bob Lannon, Jacob Fenton and I are on our way to the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Philadelphia, a gathering of heroic talents without whose work civil society would simply be impossible. We’ll be there to show off some Sunlight tools, including our Criminal Justice Data Initiative, and I’ll be taking part in a discussion of the new landscape of money in politics. And as I put together my presentation, it occurs to me that there are three disparate and seemingly contradictory subtexts that nevertheless make perfect sense as we look at the world of influence.

First, don’t forget the little stuff. In an era of contributors who think nothing of pumping $40 million, $70 million or $100 million into political campaigns, it’s easy to overlook the political action committees — the “small fry” who give a mere $2,700, who don’t play much in presidential politics. That’s one of the reasons Sunlight focused on such donors when we did the Fixed Fortunes project, which showed that the 200 most politically active companies in America disclosed spending $5.8 billion on politics from 2007 to 2012, and got $4.4 trillion in federal business and support during the same period.

If I may make a football analogy: Big super PAC donors throw Hail Mary passes — and when they connect it’s spectacular — but it’s a low percentage play, and most of them miss the target. For example, see Tom Steyer in 2014 or Sheldon Adelson in 2012. By contrast, PACs and $2,700 donors are the grunts on the line who fight for every single yard on every play. They’re not as exciting to watch, but they’re driving a lot of the real action in Washington. You can follow what they’re up to on Sunlight’s Real-Time Federal Campaign Finance tracker.

But my second point is that reporters need to widen their horizons beyond that, or the Federal Election Commission itself, to get the full picture of what’s going on. FEC filings about fundraising activity come out at most once a month. Campaigns and many super PACs file on a quarterly schedule, which allows campaigns to publicly report twice a year in odd numbered years. Sites like Political Party Time, Political Ad Sleuth and Ad Hawk give reporters a sense of what’s going on in between those disclosures.

Sunlight’s Political Party Time is a one-of-a-kind database of fundraising events hosted by politicians, parties and even super PACs that can show how much fundraising is going on, where it’s happening, who’s hosting and much much more. Political Ad Sleuth and Ad Hawk keep journalists up to date on when and where campaigns and outside groups are airing ads and what they’re saying (and even, if you dig deep enough, to whom they’re saying it). Its a critical tool for monitoring the messaging of campaigns.

My third point is that maybe we spend too much time paying attention to campaign rhetoric and not enough time to governance. It wouldn’t be necessary to spend so much time on campaign rhetoric — what they say they’ll do in office — if we had a better idea of what they’ve done, and more the point, who’s got their ear, while in office. Sunlight is engaged in a major effort to unveil these invisible influencers, who peddle their associations with powerful members of Congress, presidential administrations, campaigns, political parties and federal agencies. By showing who they are, who they work for and how they get things done in Washington, we hope we can provide a lot more information on what politicians do, rather than what they say.

So, if you’ll be at IRE 2015, be on the lookout for myself, Ryan, Bob and Jacob in Philadelphia to talk about Sunlight’s journalistic tools and money in politics reporting. Make sure you check out our session, “Tools for transparency from the Sunlight Foundation,” and see me on the panel “How to buy a candidate,” both happening on Friday. See you all at IRE!