Politics Watchdog Follows the Money Online

Politics Watchdog Follows the Money Online

Politics Watchdog Follows the Money Online

MAPlight.org, a Berkeley-based online watchdog, is breaking ground by using technology to track how political contributions shape legislation.

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Dan Newman is tall and slender, with dark hair and a steady gaze. Imagine Ralph Nader or Harry Potter in his 30s. From a 700-square-foot office in Berkeley, California, with three colleagues and fourteen interns, he runs a nonprofit website that should give unscrupulous politicians pause. It’s called MAPLight.org. The first three letters stand for “money and politics,” and Newman is illuminating the connections.

As issues go, money and politics (and their cousin, campaign-finance reform) are considered a snooze by most voters. But Newman’s high-tech approach got hearts pounding in Silicon Valley last month. At an event called Netsquared, dedicated to “remixing the web for social change,” the leaders of twenty-one nonprofit organizations presented their best digital do-gooding ideas to tech experts and funders. The causes ranged from promoting US recycling to stopping genocide to empowering Third World women. When a vote was taken on the second day of the conference, MAPLight won first-place honors and a $25,000 grant.

An expert on software that translates human speech into computer text, Newman drifted into politics as a volunteer a few years ago. He soon saw that “activists trying to change society had the deck stacked against them,” he says. “They couldn’t compete with monied interests.” So in 2004, he championed a ballot measure aimed at bringing public financing to political campaigns in the city of Berkeley. To his dismay, the measure garnered only 42 percent of the vote. Even in famously reform-minded Berkeley, “it was taking too much hand-waving to explain to people what money and politics had to do with the issues they cared about,” Newman says. “I decided to build a website that would show them the specifics.”

The specifics can get pretty interesting. If you take MAPLight’s video tour, you learn that last September Congress enacted a free-trade agreement with the sultanate of Oman, one of the few countries in President Bush’s “coalition of the willing” in the war against Iraq. From 2001 through 2006, groups supporting the free-trade deal, including Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical and Occidental Petroleum, gave an average of $163,000 to senators who voted their way on this bill. A MAPLight chart, reveals that donations from such companies surged dramatically just before and after key votes were taken. Groups that opposed the bill, such as the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club and Public Citizen, made campaign contributions to legislators, too–an average of $26,000 for each legislator voting no–but as is often the case, the side making the biggest campaign donations won.

If you go to MAPLight.org, you too can follow the money–not without some dead ends and glitches–but well enough to get a glimpse of a personalized, interactive future for political reporting. You start by choosing either US Congress or California (with more states to come later). Then you click on “interest groups,” “legislators” or “bills.” If you choose “bills,” you can compare a history of votes on a bill with a timeline showing when campaign contributions from supporters and opponents arrived. You find out who was on each side and how much money they gave to whom. “We’re taking information from the public record that previously may have taken days or weeks to analyze and making it freely available to everybody,” Newman says.

MAPLight is not alone its efforts to use the web to help people keep an eye on elected officials. In fact, its Congressional offerings are a creative amalgam (or, in techspeak, a “mash-up”) of information from two other websites that were around before MAPLight debuted last October: the Center for Responsive Politics’ opensecrets.org for campaign contributions and the Library of Congress’s THOMAS site through GovTrack.us for legislation.

MAPLight’s mash-up does not prove that campaign contributions always drive the legislative process, but it makes it easier to examine that probability. Take California’s pathetic recent attempt to tackle youth obesity. In 2005 the state passed a law setting aside $18 million to get fresh fruit and vegetables on school kids’ breakfast plates. There was only one problem. After the bill was written, lawmakers changed the word “fresh” to “nutritious,” allowing the taxpayers’ millions to be used to buy sugary canned fruit. For those who might wonder why lawmakers would sabotage their own bill in this way, MAPLight shows just how big a player the food-processing industry is in California elections: From 2001 to 2004, the years leading up to passage of this bill, the industry gave $2.3 million to 189 California legislators.

Of course, the legislators would deny any wrongdoing, and the campaign contributions are all perfectly legal. So what is the import of MAPLight’s revelations? Is its mash-up nothing more than a neat technological trick? If people pay attention, Newman says, it could be more: “Transparency leads to accountability, which leads to better legislators.” Or as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put it almost a century ago, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

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