Following the Money Trail Online
-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist
The first step to solving a problem is recognizing that you have one.
That's what I keep telling myself, anyway, to avoid becoming depressed by Maplight.org.
It's a new Web site with a very simple mission: to correlate lawmakers' voting records with the money they've accepted from special-interest groups.
All of this is public information. All of it has been available for decades. Other sites, including OpenSecrets.org, expose who's giving how much to whom. But nobody has ever revealed the relationship between money given and votes cast to quite such a startling effect.
If you click the "Video Tour" button on the home page, you'll see a six-minute video that illustrates the point. You find out that on H.R.5684, the U. S.-Oman Free Trade Agreement, special interests in favor of this bill (including pharmaceutical companies and aircraft makers) gave each senator an average of $244,000. Lobbyists opposed to the bill (such as anti-poverty groups and consumer groups) coughed up only $38,000 per senator.
Surprise! The bill passed.
If you click "Timeline of Contributions," you find out that -- surprise again! -- contributions to the lawmakers surged during the six weeks leading up to the vote. On this same page, you can click the name of a particular member of Congress to see how much money that person collected.
Another mind-blowing example: from the home page, click "California." Click "Legislators," then click "Fabian Nunez." The resulting page shows you how much this guy has collected from each special-interest group -- $2.2 million so far -- and there, in black-and-white type, how often he voted their way.
Construction unions: 94 percent of the time. Casinos: 95 percent of the time. Law firms: 78 percent of the time. Seems as though if you're an industry lobbyist, giving this fellow money is a pretty good investment.
A little time spent clicking through to these California lawmakers' pages reveals a similar pattern in most of them.
(A few, on the other hand, appear to be deliciously contrary. Jim Brulte has accepted over $67,000 from the tobacco industry, but hasn't voted in their favor a single time. Is that even ethical -- I mean, by the standards of this whole sleazy business?)
For some reason, Maplight.org doesn't reveal these "percent of the time" figures for United States Congress, only for California. You can easily see how much money each member has taken, but the column that correlates those figures with their voting record is missing.
Now, not all bills exhibit the same money-to-outcome relationships. And it's not news that our lawmakers' campaigns accept money from special interests. What this site does, however, is to expose, often embarrassingly, how that money buys votes.
I probably sound absurdly naive here. But truth is, I can't quite figure out why these contributions are even legal. Let the various factions explain their points till they're blue in the face, sure -- but to cut checks for millions of dollars?
Maplight.org isn't always easy to figure out, and not all of its data is complete. In fact, it's not even evident from the list of bills which ones have already been voted on -- a distinct disappointment, since the juicy patterns don't emerge until the vote is complete.
On the other hand, it's painstakingly non-partisan. And it uses very good data; for example, the information on contributions comes from the Center for Responsive Politics (the nonprofit, nonpartisan research group behind OpenSecrets.org), and each special industry's interests (for or against each bill) are taken exclusively from public declarations of support or opposition (Web sites, news articles, Congressional hearings and so on).
Spend a few minutes poking around. Check out a couple of the people you voted for. Have a look at how often their votes align with the interests of the lobbyists who helped to get them elected.
And be glad Maplight.org makes it so easy to spot those correlations.