Chapter 17. Disrupting Washington’s Golden Rule
This chapter was written before the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission changed the campaign finance landscape.
Washington’s golden rule is different from the one we all learned growing up: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In fact, Washington’s golden rule—“He who has the gold, rules”—works in opposite fashion.
That’s not news. The fact that big money drives government decisions, that it has created a mercenary culture in which nearly everything appears to be for sale, has been true of our nation since its founding. Whether it’s information, access to lawmakers and elected officials, legislation, or government spending, an exclusive group of moneyed insiders have outsized influence. There are, of course, many channels for money to influence outcomes, most notably campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures. There are also a multitude of ways this group of insiders gets rewarded—contracts to consulting firms, special earmarks for government spending, targeted tax breaks, and corporate subsidies. But the result is the same: those who give, get. Ordinary people—“outsiders”—are excluded from this cozy little game.
With the rise of the Internet and the social Web, the outsiders are becoming “insiders”—or, to be clearer, the barriers to entry are falling, the gatekeepers are losing their power to control access, and thus the golden rule is being disrupted. Thomas Jefferson once remarked, “Information is power.” In large part, the highly paid “insider” lobbyists in Washington work to help their clients to not just gain access to lawmakers, but perhaps as importantly, shape, obtain, and make sense of crucial government information. Lobbyists are the ones who can get their hands on copies of proposed legislation hot off the printing press before anybody else. They can help craft language for an earmark funding a pet project and make sure it gets sponsored by a lawmaker and dropped into some massive spending bill. They can interpret the minutiae of some government agency’s contracting rules and shepherd a client through the thicket. Indeed, the need for this kind of assistance has become so de rigueur that even state and local governments have sometimes taken to hiring highly paid lobbyists to help them negotiate the mysteries of Washington. With a government opaque to all but the “insiders,” outsiders—read, ordinary people—rarely have a chance to engage.
In a generation that is growing up with the Internet, however, the “outsiders” have a different kind of expectation: they expect information to be fully available 24/7, and they expect technology to allow them to engage with their friends, communities, and elected officials. If you can sit thousands of miles away from Washington, D.C., in a coffee shop with free WiFi found via a few clicks on Google Maps; if you can then do simple searches about particular health care statistics on where you live, such as the number of people who lack health care insurance and how much cash local hospitals and clinics are getting from Medicaid and Medicare; if you can dig around to see how much campaign cash your senator and representative have taken from the health care industry and how they have voted on key health care issues—well then, you have essentially become your own lobbyist, gathering the information you need to make your case to your elected representatives. If your lawmaker is on Twitter or Facebook or whatever the next revolution in the social web will be, you can communicate directly with your representatives and hold them accountable for their actions. This information shift works in both directions, by the way. Thanks to emerging technology, lawmakers and government officials will have access to increasingly sophisticated tools that help them aggregate and analyze the views of their constituents and connect directly to you. They also will not need to rely as much on intermediaries for information on what people care about. A systemic change in how Washington works is now possible.
We are only just beginning to see the potential benefits of this new age. James Madison, father of the U.S. Constitution, wrote:
A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
A more transparent government will not be the panacea for all that ails us. Our democracy will remain as messy as the founders expected and ensured it would be. But in this revolution there is finally the potential to subvert the “golden rule” of Washington—to turn government inside out.
The Bad Old Days: When Insiders Ruled
When it comes to transparency of information, there have never been any good old days. Even now, as the Obama administration is laying out an ambitious transparency agenda, we are just beginning to understand how little information is made available online—the modern-day definition of transparency. But just as in the age of the automobile it’s difficult to grasp what it was like to plan a trip across the country by stagecoach and train, or how impossible it was to get an idea to a faraway audience before the printing press, in the time of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Google, and more, it’s easy to forget the really bad old days of truly opaque government.
It helps to take a time machine back via the Sunlight Foundation’s Transparency Timeline. Much of the openness about Congress’s doings that we now take for granted was hard to come by.
- What were they talking about?
If you wanted to follow congressional debate but couldn’t make it to the nation’s capital to see it in person, you were out of luck. It wasn’t until the 1820s that Congress made its debates public, long after the fact, in the “Annals of Debates.” It was nearly 100 years after the Declaration of Independence, in 1873, that Congress finally established the Congressional Record. It would be another 122 years (1995) before the text became available online for anybody with a computer and modem to access.
- Who was giving them campaign cash?
Big campaign donors have always known how much money they gave to politicians—but the rest of us didn’t. While some scattershot rules required disclosure of limited information about campaign contributions, it took the biggest political scandal of all time—Watergate—for Congress to start disclosing comprehensive information about who was funding campaigns. Until 1995, however, this information was available only in cumbersome hard-copy files. In 2001, the U.S. Federal Election Commission (FEC) required House candidates to file campaign reports electronically. Even to this day, U.S. senators refuse to file their campaign finance records electronically. Instead, the FEC has to take hard-copy records and have staff members type information into a database, causing a substantial delay in transparency and at substantial cost to taxpayers.
- Are they invested?
It wasn’t until the late 1970s that members of Congress began disclosing their personal finances, including the gifts they received and travel they took on the dime of outside sources. Even then, the information was available only in clunky paper formats. It would have to wait until 2006, until the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) began making these forms available in PDF format on its website. More recently, CRP has made them available in searchable format (see Chapter 21).
Of course, it’s not just Congress that has specialized in opacity. Myriad government agencies, at taxpayer expense, collect and produce dizzying amounts of data about our economy, food and drug safety, and environment—indeed, every aspect of our lives. Yet in the past, most of this information remained piled up in dusty docket rooms deep inside cement edifices. Taking this data and making it available at a high price for those that could pay became a highly lucrative business.
It was only little more than a decade ago, for example, that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) began making corporate financial data—annual reports and other filings—available online. Before that, this information was the province of a small group of politically connected database vendors. Carl Malamud, public domain advocate and founder of Public.Resource.Org, essentially shamed the government into making this information available. He did this by putting the information up on the Internet himself. Once the site became popular, he told the SEC that he would take it down, but would first train the agency on how to continue to provide the data itself. The SEC bowed to the public pressure he marshaled, and now we have EDGAR, where anybody can look up corporate filings for free. Malamud ran a similar campaign to get the U.S. Patent Office to put the text of patents online.
This Is the Mashable Now
In the past, it was a victory simply to get Congress and government agencies to disclose information on paper. Then came the Internet, which, particularly in its beginnings, meant government could conduct a “paper-style” kind of disclosure—with unwieldy PDFs, for example. Now we’re in a new era, with increasing amounts of information made available in raw, machine-readable format. Every day, new experiments bloom that are helping to turn outsiders into insiders.
For years, the CRP was a lonely voice, doing the hard work of collecting and coding campaign contribution and lobbying data, and making it publicly available online for reporters, researchers, and activists. Now, thanks to support from Sunlight, CRP has made this data available via APIs and downloadable databases so that anybody can take it, enhance it, and link it to other information. Already, the group MAPLight.org has taken this campaign finance data and mashed it up with congressional votes so that anybody can find out quickly how money may have influenced a lawmaker’s actions (see Chapter 20). Now, creative developers are creating new interfaces, such as “Know thy Congressman” (a winner in the Sunlight Foundation’s Apps for America contest; http://know-thy-congressman.com/), which combines CRP’s information on campaign contributions with data from elsewhere on earmarks and biographical and legislative information. New venues bring this information alive for different audiences. For example, remember during the 2008 elections the wild popularity of The Huffington Post’s “FundRace” feature, fueled directly from FEC downloads, which people could use to look up who had given contributions to a particular presidential candidate via an interactive map? Millions of people went to check on their neighbors’ political giving histories.
What Malamud did for the SEC and the Patent Office, he also recently did for congressional video. His campaign reached a tipping point after C-SPAN tried to stop House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from posting C-SPAN hearing footage on her website. Bloggers, led by Malamud, protested online. In March 2007, C-SPAN responded by liberalizing its copyright policy and opening up its archives. The result is that now bloggers, citizen journalists, and anyone can post any federally sponsored event covered by C-SPAN online without fear of copyright reprisals, allowing websites such as Metavid.org to focus more on the application layer, building interfaces for remixing, contextualizing, and participating with the audio/video media assets of our government. As a result, it’s now possible for anyone to find, annotate, tag, clip, and display a snippet of video of lawmakers speaking from the floor of Congress on a particular bill or topic.
Providing this kind of information isn’t just an exercise in entertainment. It helps citizens become more involved and hold government accountable. In 2005, a coalition of bloggers known as the “Porkbusters” was behind efforts to help expose Alaska’s so-called “Bridge to Nowhere.” This transportation project in Alaska to connect the tiny town of Ketchikan (population 8,900) to the even tinier Island of Gravina (population 50) cost some $320 million and was funded through three separate earmarks in a highway bill. The same group helped expose which senator—former Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alas.—had put a secret hold on a bill creating a federal database of government spending, cosponsored by none other than then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. Recently, the Sunlight Foundation launched Transparency Corps, where people can volunteer small amounts of time to help enhance the transparency of government data. The first project underway—Earmark Watch—is helping to digitize earmark data, which lawmakers are making available but only in awkward formats. Armed with easily searchable data, citizens will be better equipped to track government spending on these projects.
OpenCongress.org is another example of making information more available so that citizens can digest and act on it. Through this site—which provides baseline information about federal legislation along with social networking features—users can sign up for tracking alerts on a bill, a vote, or a lawmaker and link up with other people who are interested in monitoring the same topics, monitor and comment on legislation, and contact their members of Congress. In 2008, more than 45,000 people posted comments on legislation extending unemployment benefits; first they used the OpenCongress platform as a way to press their representative to vote for the legislation; then, once it was enacted, they turned their comment thread into a de facto self-help group for people looking for advice on how to get their state unemployment agency to release their personal benefits. (Who needs lobbyists when you have the power of many?) This spring the OpenCongress Wiki launched, providing web searchers an entry on every congressional lawmaker and candidate for Congress by pulling together their full biographical and investigative records. And that’s open for anyone to edit.
We’re starting to see change from without become change for within, as government starts to move toward a more modern, twenty-first-century understanding of its obligations to provide up-to-date, searchable online information to the public. For example, FedSpending.org was the first publicly available database on all government spending, created by the nonprofit OMB Watch with support from Sunlight. Through it, citizens can find out not only how much money individual contractors get, but also what percentage of those contracts have been competitively bid. The database has been searched more than 15 million times since its inception in the fall of 2006. Its creation helped to prompt passage of the Coburn-Obama bill mandating that the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) create a similar database. But instead of spending $14 million appropriated for that task on re-creating the wheel the OMB ultimately struck a deal with FedSpending.org to license the software to build the backbone of what is today USASpending.gov, which provides citizens with easy access to government contract, grant, and other award data.
Now, with the launch of Data.gov, the Obama administration is taking government transparency to a new level. The site is still early in its development, but the idea is sound: to provide a one-stop shop for all government data. If successful, it will ultimately make hard-to-find, obscure databases, once the province only of experts, much more accessible. We can’t imagine yet what new uses people will come up with for this information.
What Comes Next
Despite admirable advances in transparency, we have a long way to go. We in the transparency community are working toward a time when there will be one-click, real-time disclosure. That would mean that a person could search corporations such as Exxon and find out, in an instant, the campaign contributions made at both the federal and state levels by its Political Action Committee (PAC) and executives; who does its lobbying, with whom they’re meeting, and what they’re lobbying on; whether it’s employing former government officials, or vice versa; whether any of its ex-employees are in government; and whether any of those people have flown on the company’s jets. We will also know what contracts, grants, or earmarks the company has gotten, and whether they were competitively bid.
When we look up a senator, we will find an up-to-date list of his campaign contributors—not one that is months out of date because the Senate still files those reports on paper. The senator’s public calendar of meetings will be online, so we can see which lobbyists are bending his ear, as will a list of earmarks the senator has sponsored and obtained. We will know what connections the lawmaker has to any private charity that people might be funneling money to. Also online will be an up-to-date list of the senator’s financial assets, along with all of the more mundane things, such as a list of bills sponsored, votes taken, and public statements made. Notably, all of this will be made available in a timely fashion.
We would like to see information about Congress linkable to agency data. That way, we could find out, easily, whether a lawmaker who received mega contributions from electric utilities and voted a certain way on an energy bill also has plants in his district and how much pollution they emit. We could see how many people in a congressional district were sickened by the latest outbreak of Salmonella or E. coli, how that representative voted on food safety legislation, and whether he attended a fundraiser hosted by a lobbyist for a big food conglomerate.
Making information available was the first big step: being able to connect the dots is the next crucial one. To make sense of information, we need to be able to analyze how one data set relates to another as easily as we search Google Maps for that coffee shop with free WiFi. The more connections we can make between seemingly disparate data, the more outsiders are invited inside, and the golden rule is subverted. A small contractor who wants to get into government work has a better chance. Citizens can help watchdog and cut down on wasteful spending. People can find out about traffic fatalities in their neighborhoods, government-sponsored clinical drug trials, and whether there’s been a safety complaint about the toy they were planning to buy their kid. The barrier for entry into policy debates will be much lower.
Sure, we will always need experts who have deep experience to help explain what information means, to give it context. But in the future, it will be a lot easier for journalists, academics, public interest advocates, bloggers, and citizens directly to help conduct these analyses themselves. That will mean a healthier debate and, as a result, a fairer and more vibrant democracy.
“The old paternalism said the world was way too complex, and that we should trust the elders who have got the credentials to make the right decisions,” said David Weinberger, author of Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, at the 2009 Personal Democracy Forum conference. “But we’re beyond a paper-based democracy now. The facts that are being given to us are intended to keep us unsettled, because in the hyperlinked world of difference, being unsettled, existing in chaos and constructive difference and never-ending argument, is a far better approximation of reality than the paper-based world could ever give us…. Transparency is the new objectivity.”
The old paternalism is dying, but there is more work to be done, because it’s in the interest of big money to try to get around transparency efforts and work outside of public view. Transparency alone will not create a democratic nirvana. But there is no denying that the outsiders are becoming the new insiders, with the potential to rattle the status quo in fundamental ways. In the immortal words of the venerable Yoda, “Always in motion is the future.”
About the Author
Ellen S. Miller is the cofounder and executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based, nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to using the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency. She is the founder of two other prominent Washington-based organizations in the field of money and politics—the Center for Responsive Politics and Public Campaign—and is a nationally recognized expert on transparency and the influence of money in politics. Her experience as a Washington advocate for more than 35 years spans the worlds of nonprofit advocacy, grassroots activism, and journalism.
 Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, David Weinberger, Times Books, 2007.