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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.

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The Democrats’ Blind Spots

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Let’s start with a premise: money buys blind spots.

The money I’m referring to is the mountain of campaign contributions – at last count, nearly $1.3 billion – that flowed this election year to candidates for Congress.

The bulk of that money found its way to winners, and those winners – the members of the incoming 110th Congress – are certainly grateful. More to the point, they’d like to ensure that future donations will continue to flow their way in 2008 and beyond. And every incumbent understands that every vote they take, every amendment they introduce, is duly noted – and scored – by a galaxy of interest groups and PAC directors.

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Web 2.0 and the future of democracy

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Like Ellen and much of the rest of the Sunlight staff, I spent all day last Friday holed up in a corner of the Mitchell Kapor Foundation in San Francisco, mixing it up with the biggest assemblage of brainiacs that I’ve seen in one room since I left grad school.

The purpose, as Ellen has already written, was to bring together some of the sharpest thinkers in the interactive world of Web 2.0 and hook them up with a few of the good-government groups trying to use the internet as a tool for making politics and government more open, accessible and understandable to everyone.

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K Street Readies Itself for the New Regime

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One of the popular taglines used by Democratic candidates in this year’s elections was that the Republicans stormed into Washington in 1994 determined to change the way the capital works. Instead, came the punch line, Washington changed them. Links were tightened between the Republican leadership and the lobbyist community. Business groups won major legislative coups. Pet project earmarks exploded. Eventually scandals ensued.

Now, after a swift kick by the voters, the Democrats are back in control and K Street – the heart of the city’s lobbying community – is quickly adjusting to be ready when the new regime takes office in January. A story by Jeff Zeleny in today’s New York Times captures the mood:

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Who Beat Jim Leach?

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As I was catching up on my post-election reading this morning, I took a second look at last week’s wrapup analysis of the money in the elections by the Center for Responsive Politics. One list in particular caught my eye – the one that showed the 38 races where the losing candidate spent more money than the winner.

On that list, with the lowest spending of any incumbent who lost, was Jim Leach (R-Iowa), a moderate Republican with 30 years in the House of Representatives. It was the first time I’d actually realized that Leach lost on November 7 – there were so many others, his face got lost in the crowd.

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Winners and Losers

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Now that the dust has nearly settled from Tuesday’s election, it’s time to calculate winners and losers among the nation’s biggest blocs of political donors. I’ve been looking over the numbers at the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets website – specifically the chart showing the 20 biggest industry donors to this year’s campaign.

“Industry,” I should point out, is a term of art on the CRP website. It includes not just familiar industries from the business world, but other categories of political donors from the labor and ideological worlds as well. “Interest groups” is probably a better way to think of it.

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Echoes from Route 50

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Last night, as I sat watching all the noisy commentary and banter of election night, I kept hearing echoes – faint, but familiar. They weren’t coming from the reporters or the pundits, but from the numbers themselves – especially when the election map turned to middle-of-the-country places like Missouri, Indiana, Ohio and Kansas.

What was coming back to me, as the numbers rolled in, were the comments I’d heard during the spring of 2005, when I spent 50 days on the road talking politics with people who live along US Route 50. That highway slices through the heart of the nation, from Maryland to California. I figured if I spent some time with people who live along that road, I’d understand more about why people vote the way they do.

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Will the Levees Hold?

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Rain is on my mind these days. Out here on the Oregon coast the seasons abruptly changed last week. We moved from the brisk and sunny days of Septober to the onset of the annual rains. The first wind warning of the season is now upon us. Soon the rain will be slicing down in horizontal sheets, like it often does out here from November to April.

All of which brings to mind, on this election eve, thoughts of Hurricane Katrina. In fact, tomorrow’s election – in the face of a Class IV political hurricane – raises the question that bedeviled New Orleans last summer: will the levees hold?

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