This site aggregates blogs from the open government technology community and public sector bloggers on related topics in the United States. Planet oGosh is a part of the HackingCongress.org community.

April 19, 2014

Open Secrets

The Comcast-FCC Revolving Door

by Robbie Feinberg at April 19, 2014 04:27 AM

The proposed merger between cable giants Comcast and Time Warner is a hotly contested issue in Congress, and angers flared again at a recent Senate hearing on the merger last week.

Thumbnail image for comcast.jpgMost of the senators seemed  ambivalent about the merger and wouldn't say whether they supported or opposed it, but one senator in particular stuck out from the rest: Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.).

"I don't like this revolving door," Franken said in an April 13 interview with CNN. "I don't like this revolving door between regulators and Comcast. I thought that was kind of tacky that one of the FCC commissioners, I think just four months after they approved the Comcast/NBC deal, went over to work a high-paying job at Comcast. I just don't like that."

So how wide is the revolving door between the telecommunications giant and the FCC?  For Comcast's in-house lobbyists, it's significant and still swinging. According to an analysis byOpenSecrets Blog, 18 people have both lobbied for Comcast and spent time in the public sector. Of those, 12 are currently registered lobbyists for Comcast, with five of them having spent time at the FCC.

From FCC chair to Comcast lobbyist

The most prominent example of the Comcast/FCC revolving door is former FCC commissioner and current Comcast lobbyist Meredith Baker.

Baker, whose views tended to side with the industry even before she went to the FCC, was appointed to to her FCC position in July 2009 and stayed there for nearly two years, cutting her four-year term short in June 2011 to move to Comcast as its senior vice president of government affairs.

When she made the move, Baker said she didn't see any problem with moving from a regulatory agency to a company she regulated, explaining in a statement that she had "not participated or voted any item, not just those related to Comcast or NBCUniversal, since entering discussions about an offer of potential employment."

Due to lobbying rules, Baker wasn't allowed to lobby the FCC for the two years following her hire at Comcast, but she has lobbied the House and Senate on a range of issues. In 2013, she lobbied on 21 bills on behalf of Comcast, with much of the legislation dealing with deregulation of the Internet, including bills that would keep online purchases tax-free.

Baker's transition from FCC leadership to industry isn't unprecedented. Michael Powell, the FCC chairman from 1997 to 2005, made a similar move, heading to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, an industry group, in 2011 as its CEO. And Jonathan Adelstein, who was an FCC commissioner from 2002 to 2009, became the president and CEO of PCIA: The Wireless Infrastructure Association in 2012.

Four other former FCC employees have followed Baker's path to Comcast. They include Rudy Brioche, who worked as an advisor to former commissioner Adelstein before moving to Comcast as its senior director of external affairs and public policy counsel in 2009. Brioche was so valued by the FCC, in fact, that he was brought in to join the commission's Advisory Committee for Diversity in the Digital Age in 2011.

Other revolving Comcast lobbyists include James Coltharp, who served as a special counsel to commissioner James H. Quello until 1997, and Jordan Goldstein, who worked as a senior legal adviser to commissioner Michael J. Copps. John Morabito, who served a number of roles in the FCC's Common Carrier Bureau, joined Comcast as one of its senior lobbyists in 2004. (He is no longer with the company.)

Comcast and Congress

But the revolving door doesn't just swing from the FCC to Comcast. Lobbyists also can head back to the public sector. That's been the case with David Krone. Krone has an extensive background with the telecommunications industry, holding leadership and lobbying positions with companies like AT&T, TCI Communications and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

In 2008, Krone worked as Comcast's senior vice president for corporate affairs. But since then, Krone has taken his telecommunications knowledge to the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Krone started as a senior advisor to the senator in 2008 and rose to become Reid's chief of staff in 2011, a position he holds today.

Overall, Comcast has traditionally had a heavy lobbying presence Washington. The company has spent at least $12 million on lobbying every year since 2008, with that number peaking at $19.6 million in 2011. Last year, Comcast spent more than $18.8 million, making it the sixth-highest spender on federal lobbying. 

April 18, 2014

Sunlight Foundation

Sunlight at PyCon 2014

by Bob Lannon at April 18, 2014 08:42 PM

Last week, a flock of Sunlighters flew north to join fellow Pythonistas in the community's annual celebration of hacking in the language we love. As a bonus, this year's conference was held in Montreal, giving us a chance to learn some Français Québécois, sample the finest poutine and hang out with local Montrealer and OpenNorth founder James McKinney. As usual, we learned a lot from the excellent talks, and had a great experience at the PyCon development sprints.

The State of the Python Community is Strong

The Python community continues to earn its reputation as an inclusive and eclectic one, where hackers, researchers, newcomers and cutting-edge developers are both teaching and learning from each other. We're happy that Sunlight Labs has attended for many years, and we're better off for the experiences that we have at such an exciting conference.

The tone was set early this year. An uplifting keynote from John Perry Barlow, former songwriter for the Grateful Dead and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who seemed to be speaking directly to us at times:

"...I dream of a day where the right to know is understood to be a natural human right that extends to every being on the planet who is governed by anything. The right to know what its government is doing, and how, and why. And I depend on people like you, who are building the plumbing."

Other keynotes that stood out to us were Fernando Pérez's talk on the amazing IPython project and Jessica McKellar's talk on the Python community's role in encouraging a diverse population of American kids to engage with computer science in meaningful ways. These talks had a natural synergy, because IPython has given both teachers and researchers new tools with which to communicate and document good code practices as well as subject matter in fields like math, science and statistics. When Kaitlin Devine set up Python training for Sunlighters, her course made good use of the IPython notebook as a tool for engaging those new to coding.

The Open Spaces at PyCon, an unconference going on in parallel to the scheduled talks, also featured examples of excellent community building. The Geekfeminism and feminist hackerspace meetup, Trans* Pythonistas and Allies meetup, and Regional PyCon organizer meetup are examples of conscious efforts to build a broader community that is welcoming to traditionally under-represented groups, and share ideas about the future.

New Friends

Other sessions at Open Spaces included the "Birds of a Feather" (BoF) meetups. At the Data Workflow BoF, we saw some new offerings in shareable data visualizations from plotly, a video analysis tool used at Mozilla for product testing and [lifelines], a survival analysis package developed by Cameron Davidson-Pilon (more here). At the Vim users BoF we met up with our PyCon buddy and fellow DC developer Matt Boehm, developer of the excellent unstack, a plugin to help decode Python stack traces. A few other excellent plugins to brag about to your Emacs frenemies: vimdeck for terminal-based slide presentations, vim-ipython for integration with IPython, and syntastic for all your code highlighting and linting needs.

Open Data Sprinting at Pycon

Finally, we're happy to report that there was not one, but two Open Gov / Open Data BoFs! We organized one on Saturday night and also stopped in to talk with a separate one the following day. The second BoF was organized by Sarah Bird of Aptivate, who was working on Open Data Comparison a project comparing metadata across different open sources of government contracting data. We all decided to sprint together, using a shared hackpad and collaborate where we could.

During the sprints, James tried out some of the new devops software that was generating buzz at PyCon, including Ansible and Vagrant. Lindsay prepared FARA data for mapping. Paul made some new converts, both to Hy and to government transparency. Daniel worked on tests for the python-sunlight package, which is a wrapper for Sunlight's APIs.

This year's sprints also saw the beginning of Bob's influence-usa project as a community-driven effort. Michael Mulich contributed data validation and import scripts to our work on federal lobbying disclosure. Aaron Rothenberg lent a hand in identifying the availability of campaign finance data in various states, and wrote some initial scraping code for Ohio. Finally, we were lucky enough to receive some advice from Catherine Devlin, whose ddl-generator project (still under development) will be of immense use to projects like influence-usa and the unitedstates org. Because the ideal output of our transformation scripts is json text files, having a tool that suggests SQL create and insert statements will target a general need for RDBMS users that want to ingest that data.

Our favorite talks

So many talks, so little ability to exist in multiple rooms simultaneously! There were some times when choosing between two co-occurring talks was difficult, but thankfully PyVideo had most talks posted very promptly -- even the same day in many cases. Here are our staff picks:

Paultag's Hy talk

paultag delivers a talk on Hy. quote:

Paul blows our minds with Hy

Coming in at an obvious #1 is our very own Paul Tagliamonte's "Getting Hy on Python". Call us biased, but Paultag commanded a very engaging talk despite difficult material and technical difficulties. Many attendees rushed the stage to discuss Hy, a Lisp that compiles to Python, with its creator afterwards.

Broad Subjects

New Tools for Python Developers

How-to's and Surveys

Computer Science Concepts

  • All Your Ducks In A Row: Data Structures in the Standard Library and Beyond: How Python uses memory and why the list object is the most dangerous one in the standard library! Very accessible intro to Python internals from Brandon Rhodes
  • Computer science fundamentals for self-taught programmers: Lindsay (a recent migrant from our reporting group to Labs) appreciated this introduction to Big O notation, linked lists, and search algorithms. Bob, originally a double major in English and linguistics, has added it to his reading list for this weekend.
  • Garbage Collection in Python: How CPython and pypy handle GC, and how you can configure an alternative in pypy. A bit more advanced, but a good intro to some low-level optimization concerns.
  • Pickles are for Delis, not Software: Alex Gaynor's talk was, as expected, educational and engaging. Alex tells us why we shouldn't rely on the pickle object, with examples from pickletools.dis, a tool that shows the innards of Python's native serialization object.

Our Favorite Posters

  • cubes: Online Analytical Processing (OLAP) in Python. Hoping to see the databrewery folks at Transparency Camp!
  • PYO: Signal processing in Python
  • MAME emulation with Python on a RasPi
  • PyAlgoViz: Visualizing algorithms in the browser using Python, from the poster "How I Got a Job at Google"

Open Secrets

Banking Industry Has Connections to Shape Mortgage Overhaul

by Robbie Feinberg at April 18, 2014 03:37 PM

This month, the Senate Banking Committee is set to consider a bill to overhaul the mortgage finance system, most notably by getting rid of the government-owned mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac over five years.

crapo.jpgThat would significantly shift the risks of mortgages, as well as the entire mortgage market, away from the government and toward the private sector. And with a wealth of lobbying cash as well as connections with the bill's crafters, the financial sector (including the insurance and banking industries) could play a serious role in shaping how those risks and rewards turn out in the final legislation.

The proposed measure, from Senate Banking Committee chairman Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and ranking member Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), would extinguish Fannie and Freddie and create a body called the Federal Mortgage Insurance Corporation to regulate a new insurance system for mortgage bonds. The new system would make lenders accountable for the first 10 percent of potential losses on mortgage bonds, with the government liable for the rest.

Lobbying data isn't yet available on the new bill, but the banking and insurance industries have already lobbied hard on many of the provisions it contains. The framework for Johnson and Crapo's proposal is a bill introduced last summer by Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.). (Changes, include giving the FMIC greater regulatory powers and changing some requirements for single family housing.)

Seven of the 10 companies that listed last year's bill most frequently on lobbying disclosure reports were in the banking, real estate and insurance industries, which generally support getting rid of Fannie and Freddie. The groups include Regions Financial, which listed the bill on seven reports, and the American Bankers Association, which listed it on five. 

The ABA has long voiced its support for nixing government-sponsored entities like Fannie and Freddie. For that reason, the group has already supported parts of the Johnson-Crapo bill, saying in a statement that the bill is an "important step forward," though the group still wants to see less government regulation in the market. The ABA and its affiliates have the cash to make an impact on the final legislation, having spent $8.8 million on lobbying in 2013. Other commercial banks that lobbied on the bill were JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, who spent about $5.5 million and $5.6 million on lobbying in 2013, respectively.

Organizations that are against the legislation tend to have far less political capital. They include the NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which came out in late March with a joint letter opposing the legislation, along with five other organizations. The groups spent more than $500,000 and $800,000 respectively on lobbying in 2013.

Lobbyist connections

Potentially even more important is the presence of two prominent lobbyists for banking and real estate organizations: Dwight Fettig and John Anderson.

Fettig and Anderson have worked at various Washington institutions (including, in Fettig's case, Freddie Mac), but what's most noteworthy when it comes to this legislation are their connections with Johnson and Crapo, the crafters of the newer bill. Fettig worked for Johnson for more than fifteen years, first as his legislative director from 1988 to 2002 and then as the staff director of the Senate Banking Committee when Johnson was chairman, from 2010 to 2013. Anderson spent years as a senior policy advisor for Crapo, including serving as the senator's liaison to the Senate Banking Committee.

Both Fettig and Anderson weighed in heavily on the 2013 Corker-Warner bill, with many of their clients in the commercial banking and insurance industries.

Fettig lobbied on the bill for groups such as the American Bankers Association and the global investment firm Jefferies & Co. Anderson, meanwhile, lobbied for financial bodies like Citigroup, Genworth Financial and Nomura Holdings, among others.

With both lobbyists having ties to the financial sector as well as close connections with Crapo and Johnson, the commercial banking and insurance industries could have a marked advantage in getting heard when the legislation is considered and brought to a vote; in fact, they likely have played a not insignificant role in shaping the bill.

For both Crapo and Johnson, the finance, insurance and real estate sector has been the biggest source of campaign cash over their careers. The employees and PAC of Citigroup were the largest donor to Johnson over his career, while JPMorgan Chase has given the most to Crapo.

Image: Sen. Mike Crapo at a Senate Banking Committee Hearing (Flickr/American Insurance Association).

Follow Robbie on Twitter at @robbiefeinberg

Sunlight Foundation

OpenGov Voices: Does open data improve governance? Of course!

by Zubedah Nanfuka at April 18, 2014 03:10 PM

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Sunlight Foundation or any employee thereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog. An image of Diego May co-founder of Junar Diego May, co-founder of Junar. Image credit: Junar

I have a confession, something I don’t usually say in public: I enjoy looking at datasets on the weekend. I love playing with data and I love seeing what developers can create with data.

I am a data geek. It’s safe to admit now, since I’ve already married and started a family.

But my love for data is only one reason I have devoted my career to the open data movement. A bigger reason is that I believe open data can actually improve democracy.

That’s a pretty big statement and I know there are some doubters out there. But I’ve seen enough examples to know it’s true. The really exciting part is that we are still in the very early days of open data.

Even today, most of the cities opening their datasets are large and have money to invest in technology and try things. There are some smaller, leading cities, such as Palo Alto, Calif., but so far they are the outliers.

It’s not that cities don’t want to open up data. Rather, they either simply feel it’s out of reach for one reason or another, or they cannot yet measure the impact of an open data program.

Open data must be made simple

At Junar our main focus has been on making open data so simple that a lot of small and midsize cities – cities that aren’t usually on the leading edge and don’t think they have budgets to embrace open data – can have it. Junar is a cloud-based data platform that enables businesses, governments and other organizations to free their data in order to drive new opportunities, collaboration and transparency. The platform works by collecting, enhancing, publishing, sharing and analyzing data.

Think about the democratization of content on the web. What made that possible was the emergence of low-threshold, easy-to-use content platforms. If I ask you to go to the web and publish content of 140 characters or less, it’s obvious which tool you would use and that tool is so simple. If I ask you to create a blog, you know how to create an account and start doing that. It’s easy.

But if I ask you to go publish information that fulfills the definition of open data – usable format, easily sharable, proper structure, enriched metadata, APIs, etc. – what is the application that comes to mind? Probably none, because until very recently there was no easy way to publish open data.

But it is already getting easier and there will come a day when it gets easier still. When it does, we’ll really start to see the transformation of democracies.

An image of a screenshot of Junar Junar - an open data platform. Image credit: Junar

How data transformed a city in Argentina

I’ve seen this first-hand while participating in an open data project in Bahía Blanca, a port city and a center for petrochemicals in my native Argentina, where not all things are transparent, so to speak.

A few years ago, some smart, brave people leveraged open data to shed light on official corruption. A new mayor came in, determined to change things and he hired a great CIO.

They started an open data portal that I can tell you has completely changed the status quo and helps the government engage citizens on a different level. They published all kinds of data – even some salary information – and they created an API that allows apps to send out a lot of data about the environment. They brought all this data to life and it is now bringing a lot of applications to life.

Now, you see a lot of young people in Bahía Blanca (a city of about 300,000) sensing that they can change government and this is generating an effect across Argentina.

Other seeds of progress

Even as open data is transforming government, other seeds are beginning to take root. In the United States, we’re starting to see hard evidence that open data is having profound economic effects.

Joel Gurin’s recently released an Open Data 500 study at New York University which shows that a “data economy” is, in fact, taking shape and that data spurs economic development wherever it is set free.

It’s amazing to think that it is all starting with the transformation of democratic governments. In this case, government is leading the pack. Many other organizations – NGOs, academia, corporations, media companies – are soon to follow, once they discover easy ways to open up valuable data they have compiled.

And that will be very good news for data geeks like me.

Diego May is the co-founder of Junar, a global company with offices in Dallas, Silicon Valley and Latin America. Junar provides a cloud-based open data platform that enables innovative organizations worldwide to quickly, easily and affordably make their data accessible to all. Using the Junar platform, initial datasets can be published in a few weeks, providing greater transparency, driving collaboration and citizen engagement and freeing up precious staff resources.

Interested in writing a guest blog for Sunlight? Email us at guestblog@sunlightfoundation.com

 

Sunlight Foundation

The Week in Politwoops: Flying over Colombia, #theft, doing it for the Vine and more

by Nicko Margolies at April 18, 2014 02:15 PM

An image of a lush landscape seen from above that was deleted from the official Twitter account of Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas. Image via Politwoops.

Welcome to this week's review of notable deleted tweets caught and archived by the Sunlight Foundation's Politwoops project. We start with a deletion from the official account of Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, that said, "Flying over beautiful #Colombia" with the image seen to the right. There are no similar tweets on his official Twitter account or mention of a trip to Colombia. It could just be a vacationing staffer who is mistakenly logged into the member's account, but I have yet to receive a response from his office.

Champ Edmunds, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Montana who you may remember from last week's Politwoops roundup where he discovered a backpack full of money while airing out the scene of a clogged toilet, makes another Politwoops appearance this week when he deleted, "My dark green 2002 Dodge Crew Cab truck with a REVDUP plate has been stolen! If you see it, please call the Msla PD or MCSO. Thanks! #theft." The tweet was deleted after 7 hours and while I hoped the truck was located, I noticed the Missoula Police Department tweeted, "Stolen from 2000 blk Mullan Rd: 2002 Dodge Ram 1/2 ton, dk grn in color w/rusted rear pass door. MT Lic "REVDUP". Call 9-1-1 if you see it." I called both the Edmunds campaign and the Missoula Police Department about the status of the REVDUP truck case, but was not able to find someone who knew what happened.

In what was likely a copy-paste mix up, the official Twitter account for Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., deleted a link to the YouTube embedded to the left after being up for just 4 seconds. There are no other mentions of this video or other Vine compilations from his official House account.

Finally, Gov. Susana Martinez, R-N.M., deleted a retweet of a Buzzfeed reporter who linked to a Mother Jones cover story about Gov. Martinez that included profanity-laden audio recordings. The now deleted retweet said "RT @mckaycoppins: I wonder what % of prominent pols would come off looking good when secret recordings of them were selectively leaked." She deleted the retweet after 14 seconds and replaced it with a tweet saying "Stand with me and show the D.C. liberal media their desperate attacks have no place in NM http://bit.ly/1eQf7Bq #StandwithSusana #NMPol." The deletion caught by Politwoops was picked up by Mother Jones and Slate.

Today in #OpenGov 4/18/2014

by Matt Rumsey at April 18, 2014 12:34 PM

Keep reading for today's look at #OpenGov news, events and analysis including the fundraiser-in-chief, open data in Jakarta, and a new open data law in Maryland.series-opengov-today

National News

  • A number of healthcare industry groups are teaming up to issue new recommendations to increase price transparency in the sector. (Washington Post)
  • President Obama has attended 373 fundraisers during his time in office. (Government Executive)

International News

  • Jakarta, Indonesia is holding an open data challenge and working to get its city managers to use open data to make better decisions. (Future Gov)
  • Only 1 in 200 citizens in Pakistan bothers to file their income tax return. In an attempt to shame the other 199, officials are publishing a directory of taxpayers' details. (Tech President)
  • The French antitrust authority persuaded Nespresso to open its espresso machine to third-party pod providers. A similar story may be headed in the opposite direction in the United States, where Keurig is planning to lock their system to outside pod-makers. (Ars Technica)

State and Local News

  • Maryland passed a law that will set up a state Council on Open Data, comprised of 37 government, academic, and private-sector leaders. The law also mandates more data releases. (Government Technology)
  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development is planning to post salary data for officials running America's 4,000 public housing authorities by mid-May(Government Executive)

Do you want to track transparency news? You can follow the progress of relevant bills on our Scout page. You can also get Today in #OpenGov sent directly to your preferred news reader!

April 17, 2014

Open Secrets

OpenSecrets.org Adds New Joint Fundraising Committee Section

by Russ Choma at April 17, 2014 08:23 PM

Today OpenSecrets.org added a new section for joint fundraising committees, the fundraising partnerships between candidates, committees or party committees that allow participants to pool their efforts and split the proceeds. While JFCs are not new, they've becoming increasingly prominent in recent years. With the McCutcheon v. FEC ruling, many campaign finance experts believe they will become even more prevalent.

JFCPageScreenshot.jpg
The benefit of a JFC to participants is that it streamlines the process of fundraising. The participants in the JFC can't accept more from a single donor than they can on their own, but by approaching donors together they can collect the donations in one quick transaction.  In the 2012 election, both President Barack Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney formed victory committees with their respective national party groups and ten state party groups. Instead of each group approaching a donor and asking for numerous small contributions, one fundraiser representing all of them could ask for one large check. The first $5,000 from the donor's check would go to the presidential campaign, the next $30,800 would go to the national party and then every $10,000 after would go to a state party committee until the donor reached his or her aggregate limit for donations to candidates or parties. 

Almost all of that money would be spent getting the candidate elected -- either through his own campaign or through the efforts of the party -- but instead of having 12 different fundraisers approaching a big donor, just one would. But there was a catch -- because of aggregate limits in 2012, donors could only give $70,800 to PACs or party committees and $5,000 to a presidential campaign. So, the most a donor could give at once was $75,800. The Supreme Court found those limits to be unconstitutional in McCutcheon. Instead of having 12 different committees partnering, 100 different committees can now join a JFC, and so long as each participant doesn't get more money than they're legally allowed to from a specific donor, the size of the check they can jointly solicit from the donor is limitless. 

That, many believe, is why these JFCs will become so important now that aggregate limits have been tossed aside. While these used to be most common at the presidential level, JFCs have existed at the Congressional level as well. Now, they seem likely to become a much bigger part of fundraising efforts. In both 2008 and 2012, we created JFC pages tracking how they operate at the presidential level, and this new section is designed to expand  that data. . 

On this new JFC page, we track not only the committees that have raised the most, but which candidates or committees have benefited the most. Additionally we've created a list of top individual donors to JFCs so far in this cycle and last. There are also JFC profiles for any individual JFC with detailed information on donors to each.

Follow Russ on Twitter: @russchoma

Sunlight Foundation

American Oligarchy: How the preferences of elites shape policy outcomes

by Alexander Furnas at April 17, 2014 05:40 PM

This frequently reproduced cartoon depicts corporate interests as giant money bags looming over the tiny senators at their desks in the Chamber. "The Bosses of the Senate" by Joseph Keppler

At Sunlight we spend a lot of time trying to make sense of who has a say in the policy making process, and whose perspective is being heard. Time and time again we find that well-organized corporate interests are far more involved in the process than ordinary citizens, or the underfunded groups that seek to represent them.

Now, a recent paper — forthcoming in Perspectives on Politics by political scientists Marty Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern — has provided some really striking empirical evidence that the kinds of imbalances we have observed anecdotally in our work at Sunlight are actually systematic features of modern American democracy. The preferences of economic elites and business interests, according to Gilens and Page, significantly shape policy outcomes — and the preferences of average citizens simply don’t.

Gilens and Page looked at 1,779 high salience policy issues between 1981 and 2002. They compared whether these specific policies were adopted or not dependent on the preferences of median income citizens and wealthy individuals, measured through public opinion surveys and the activities of mass-based and business-oriented interest groups.

They found that the percentage of average citizens who favored a policy being enacted had no demonstrable effect on the likelihood that the policy would pass. The top chart in the figure below demonstrates this finding: As the percentage of citizens supporting a policy increases, the likelihood that that policy will pass does not increase – the line is horizontal.

Conversely, the second chart indicates that elites are very influential: As the percentage of economic elites favoring a policy increases, the likelihood that the policy will be adopted increases as well.

The final chart in the figure below shows that policies are unlikely to be adopted when many powerful interest groups are aligned against them.

Chart from Gilens & Page 2014, showing the impact of the preferences of different groups on policy outcomes Chart from Gilens & Page, showing the impact of the preferences of different groups on policy outcomes.

As Gilens and Page summarize their findings: “Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

The mechanisms behind the outsized influence of elites are still not well known. Of course at Sunlight, we think lobbying and campaign finance are pretty important parts of this story. One way to think about the elite domination story is to consider the vectors of influence that elites have over policy makers. In our "1% of the 1% study," we found that just 31,000 people contributed 28% of all the (traceable) money in the 2012 cycle. It’s a good guess that these folks have the ears of the politicians whose campaigns they fund. As Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., noted while speaking about raising money from big donors, “I talked a lot more about carried interest inside of that call room than I did in the supermarket.”

This is really important work, and provides empirical backing to how we have suspected politicians respond to conflicting policy preferences and pressures. This work suggests at least as many interesting research questions as it answers, and we look forward to seeing where Gilens and Page take it.

Upcoming EU elections bringing undue influence into the spotlight again

by Julia Keserű at April 17, 2014 03:59 PM

A few days ago, a broader coalition of European civil society organizations launched a campaign to make some noise around the influence of big businesses on EU institutions. The timing seems perfect as the upcoming EU elections could create some more serious buy-in from candidates for an effective lobbyist registry. Fixing the current system — which is broken in so many ways — has been on the table for quite a while now, without any success.

PfP Photo credit: Politics for People

So what's the problem? As a new study shows, a vast majority of banks and financial lobby groups working to influence EU banking regulations are not registered within the EU's volunteer lobbyist system, and other industries are notoriously opaque too. As a result, EU citizens have no idea how many laws that affect their lives directly have the fingerprints of lobbyists all over them – from climate to public health to data protection – or how their MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) are influenced by the agenda of big business.

The new Politics for People website – launched as the centerpiece of the broader civic campaign – provides an easy way for EU citizens to directly contact their MEPs through social media channels. People can urge their politicians running for re-election to sign a pledge, and support the interest of the broader public as opposed to the voice of those with money. The website also features case studies explaining how excessive industry lobbying impacts upon the daily lives of ordinary EU citizens, and how the "fire power" of big business can impede meaningful reform.

A lot of prominent MEPs have already signed the pledge, which is a truly encouraging sign. Two days ago, the European Parliament issued a resolution upon the European Commission (the executive body of the European Union) to prepare a legislative proposal for a mandatory register by 2016. It also asks the Commission to, in the meantime, introduce ambitious measures to encourage lobbyists to join the register — for instance, by limiting the number of meetings with unregistered lobbyists.

For our friends living across the pond: you can take action now!

House retirees leaving $13 M on the table

by Kathy Kiely at April 17, 2014 03:01 PM

The 25 House members who have announced plans to retire at the end of this year and who aren't seeking higher office have money to burn.

An analysis of campaign finance reports filed this week with the Federal Election Commission shows that the House short-termers have more than $13 million combined in their collective campaign kitties. Number one on the list, compiled using Sunlight's Real-Time FEC tracker: Rep. Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican who is currently chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, a popular target for lobbyists' contributions.

We've already detailed the money that parting lawmakers can keep: Campaign contributions to leadership PACs can — and are — appropriated for any use imaginable, as 60 Minutes reporter Steve Kroft has documented. But House members generally have far larger amounts of cash stashed in their regular campaign committees. FEC regulations and the rules of the House strictly limit the uses of this money. Basically departing members can:

  • Retire debts
  • Refund contributions
  • Contribute to other campaigns
  • Pay to continue operating their committees

The latter two options provide plenty of opportunities for politicians who might want to keep their options open for continuing their careers, or take positions where maintaining cordial relations with politicians might be key.

Smiling man with swept back grey hair, parted on the side, wearing open collar dress shirt, no tie and a dark jacket Marty Meehan, a Democrat who retired from Congress in 2007, has a bigger campaign war chest than any lawmaker currently running for office. (Photo credit: University of Massachusetts)

In fact, the House committee with the most cash on hand — $4.5 million — belongs to the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell — Marty Meehan, who left his congressional seat in 2007. A look at the campaign finance report filed this week by the former Democratic representative shows that he spent $67,500 making donations to politicians and political campaigns, most of them in Massachusetts, but not all: Meehan gave $5,000 to the gubernatorial campaign of Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., and made smaller contributions to the campaign committees of Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Md., Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Jack Reed, D-R.I. Marty Meehan for Congress also made donations to a number of Massachusetts charities, with the largest — $12,000 — going to the Marty Meehan Educational Foundation, and another $10,000 going to the Urban League of Springfield (Mass.).

Another former Massachusetts representative also makes the top 20 list of House committees with the most cash on hand: No. 15 is Citizens for Joe Kennedy 1988, with $2.5 million. That would not, obviously, be the current Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., who was born in 1980. The Kennedy in question is the congressman's father, Joe Kennedy II, who is now an advocate for affordable energy. His filing this week to the FEC reported some $30,000 in operating expenses and no contributions of any sort — not even to his son's campaign.

Both the Meehan and Kennedy committees continue to register "contributions" in the form of interest on their bank accounts. You can see a complete list of all the House candidates' campaign committees, ranked by cash on hand, here.

Andrews bestows parting gifts on staff

One former member of the 113th Congress not on our list of retirees is Rob Andrews, a New Jersey Democrat, who abruptly resigned in February, likely ending an ethics investigation into potentially improper uses of his campaign funds. Before announcing his plans, Andrews bestowed $58,076 in "performance bonuses" on his staff, an examination of his campaign committee's latest filings with the Federal Election Commission shows. Now an attorney on the "government practice" team of Dilworth Paxson, a politically active Philadelphia-based law firm, Andrews ended the quarter with more than $431,000 in his campaign coffers.

Computational Legal Studies

The Future of Law School Innovation (Conference @ColoradoLaw)

by Daniel Martin Katz at April 17, 2014 02:42 PM

Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 10.35.56 AMFrom the conference announcement: “Over the last 5 years, in the fallout of the Great Recession, the legal profession has entered the era of the New Normal. Notably, a series of forces related to technological change, globalization, and the pressure to do more with less (in both corporate America and law firms) has changed permanently the legal services industry. As one article put it, firms are cutting back on hiring “in order to increase efficiency, improve profit margins, and reduce client costs.” Indeed, in its recently noted cutbacks, Weil Gotshal’s leaders remarked that it had initially expected old work to return, but came “around to the view that this is the ‘new normal.’”

The New Normal provides lawyers with an opportunity to rethink—and reimagine—the role of lawyers in our economy and society. To the extent that law firms enjoyed, or still enjoy, the ability to bundle work together, that era is coming to an end, as clients unbundle legal services and tasks. Moreover, in other cases, automation and technology can change the roles of lawyers, both requiring them to oversee processes and use technology more aggressively as well as doing less of the work that is increasingly managed by computers (think: electronic discovery). The upside is not only greater efficiencies for society, but new possibilities for legal craftsmanship.

The emerging craft of lawyering in the New Normal is likely to require lawyers to be both entrepreneurial and fluent with a range of competencies that will enable them to add value for clients. Apropos of the trends noted above, there are emerging opportunities for “legal entrepreneurs” in a range of roles from legal process management to developing technologies to manage legal operations (such as overseeing automated processes) to supporting online dispute resolution processes. In other cases, effective legal training as well as domain specific knowledge (finance, sales, IT, entrepreneurship, human resources, etc.) can form a powerful combination that prepares law school grads for a range of opportunities (business development roles, financial operations roles, HR roles, etc.). In both cases, traditional legal skills alone will not be enough to prepare law students for these roles. But the proper training, which builds on the traditional law school curriculum and goes well beyond it including practical skills, relevant domain knowledge (e.g., accounting), and professional skills (e.g., working in teams), will provide law school students a huge advantage over those with a one-dimensional skill set.”

Open Secrets

McCutcheon and the Gender Divide, Pt. II

by Doug Weber at April 17, 2014 02:23 PM

We've been diving deeper into the question of how the Supreme Court's McCutcheon v. FEC decision might affect the share of contributions coming from men versus women.

As we already know, maxed out donors in 2012 -- those who hit the limit on overall contributions to candidates, PACs and parties -- were overwhelmingly male

Breaking down those 2012 numbers further in order to try to look ahead, it's important to note that female donors gave a higher percentage of money to female congressional candidates. Contributions to Democratic candidates drove this gender gap. Donors to Republican candidates did not show such a gender split but gave a far lower percentage to women overall. 

Maxed Out Donors - All Congressional Candidates

&&&&&

Maxed Out Donors - All Democratic Candidates

&&&&&


Maxed Out Donors - All Republican Candidates

&&&&&


Compared to donors in general, maxed out donors gave a higher percentage of money to women. This was again driven by Democratic donors, in particular female donors to Democratic candidates. Maxed out donors to Republican candidates gave a slightly lower percentage to women. 

All Donors - All Congressional Candidates

&&&&&


All Donors - All Democratic Candidates

&&&&&


All Donors - All Republican Candidates

&&&&&


How all this will affect female candidates is hard to predict. On the Democratic side, female candidates might actually benefit a little if women who maxed out before were to expand their contributions. However, the maxed out donors were mostly Republican and most female candidates are Democrats. It's a question of both party and gender.

Sunlight Foundation

Today in #OpenGov 4/17/2014

by Matt Rumsey at April 17, 2014 12:06 PM

Keep reading for today's look at #OpenGov news, events and analysis including e-filing on tax day, anti-corruption in Armenia, and public officials' public records.series-opengov-today

National News

  • A new study from CREW found that companies that voluntarily disclose their political spending don't always do a particularly good job. (Roll Call)
  • Many Americans electronically file their taxes, but only 21 Senators electronically filed their campaign finance reports. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) is pushing to require all Senators to e-file, which could save $500,000. (Public Integrity)
  • The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs updated its meetings database, making it easier to search through information about meetings with non-government officials. So far, the update only applies to recent meetings. (Center for Effective Government)
  • Dave Camp (R-MI), the retiring chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, could be looking at a plum spot on K Street if he decides to move across town after he leaves office. (The Hill)

International News

  • Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, himself not known as a paragon of good governance, lashed out at Nigeria for perceived corruption in that country recently. (Global Voices)
  • A growing government watchdog in Armenia is approaching its anti-corruption work with a variety of high and low tech tools. (Open Society Foundations)

State and Local News

  • Louisville is planning to add more than 90 new datasets to its website in the coming days and another 173 in the future. The moves comes after a report, requested by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, found that the city has 414 datasets. (Louisville Courier-Journal)
  • Opinion: A recent court decision that exempted public business conducted on private devices from California Public Records Act lacks common sense. "When public officials conduct public business, their constituents get to watch, regardless of the platform." (Los Angeles Times)

Events Today

Do you want to track transparency news? You can follow the progress of relevant bills on our Scout page. You can also get Today in #OpenGov sent directly to your preferred news reader!

April 16, 2014

Sunlight Foundation

Candidates vying to replace retiring House members raised big bucks in first quarter

by Palmer Gibbs at April 16, 2014 05:50 PM

Tom MacArthur, candidate for New Jersey's 3rd District House seat New Jersey businessman Tom MacArthur raised the most money this quarter among House candidates, but a $2 million loan to his own campaign is what put him on top.

A handful of candidates angling to replace retiring members of the House from New Jersey, New York and California are at the top of the fundraising heap for this quarter, according to the Sunlight Foundation’s Real-Time FEC tool.

Although a scan of the top fundraisers for the first three months of 2014 reveals some of the usual suspects – like House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va. – the winner of the money race is Tom MacArthur, a former New Jersey insurance executive hoping to replace retiring Rep. Jon Runyan. Real-Time shows MacArthur, locked in a tight Republican primary with Steve Lonegan, came out on top because he loaned his campaign $2 million. Other than that, MacArthur received only one contribution: a $1,000 check from a bank executive in Randolph, New Jersey.

New York’s Kathleen Rice, running for retiring Democrat Rep. Carolyn McCarthy’s seat, brought in $1.47 million during the first quarter. The current Nassau County District Attorney received $10,000 from Off the Sidelines, fellow Democrat Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s leadership PAC, and $5,000 from abortion rights group EMILY’s List. Rice also received $4,000 from Nancy Pelosi for Congress and $2,000 from Friends of Carolyn McCarthy.

Three candidates vying for Democrat Rep. Henry Waxman’s 33rd District seat in southern California also brought in some big bucks this quarter. Real-Time data show Democrat David Kanuth raised $803,653 and bestselling self-help author (and collector of Hollywood endorsements) Marianne Williamson collected $697,842.38. Williamson loaned her campaign $60,000. And businessman James Graf raised a little more than $1 million, but Real-Time shows that just about all of it came from his own wallet.

A little further south, in San Diego County, Republican Fred Simon is running for the 52nd District seat, currently held by Democratic Rep. Scott Peters. Although Simon hauled in almost $970,000, Real-Time shows that $953,000 of that total is from Simon himself.

California’s so-called blanket primary system allows the top two vote-getters to advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation, making the June 3 primary a huge deadline for each of these congressional candidates.

And back on the East Coast, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., raised $737,379 during the first quarter. Shuster, who has represented the Keystone State’s 9th District since 2001 — after succeeding his father, former Rep. Bud Shuster — collected a large chunk of that total from PACs, including trade groups and unions. The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Shuster received $5,000 from the BNSF Rail PAC and $2,500 from the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades PAC.

Here’s a list of the top fundraisers this quarter, and a complete list is available here.

Open Secrets

OpenSecrets Blog Receives Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi Award

by Communications at April 16, 2014 04:25 PM

The Center for Responsive Politics' OpenSecrets Blog has won a 2013 Sigma Delta Chi Award from the Society of Professional Journalists, in the category of Public Service in Online Journalism (Independent).

SDX_Awards13_Web-Header.jpgOur winning entry, "Dark Money Dealings," is a set of investigative reports by CRP political nonprofits investigator Robert Maguire and editorial director Viveca Novak, including one collaboration with NPR's Peter Overby. The reports, which chronicle the operations and networks of 501(c)(4) political nonprofits that pour millions of anonymous dollars into into U.S. elections, are as follows:

This investigative reporting is part of Shadow Money Trail, our exclusive series about the funding behind politically active nonprofits that do not disclose their donors.

We are excited and grateful to have won this prestigious award, and extend our congratulations to fellow honorees.


Sunlight Foundation

Guns, gays, Hillary Clinton and Ben Carson: political fundraising reflects polarized USA

by Kathy Kiely at April 16, 2014 02:01 PM

Picture of smiling man in front of blue and white CNBC back drop. He is balding with white beard and glasses, A Republican gay rights group is one of the super PACs that raised the most money during the first quarter of this year thanks to Republican financier Paul Singer. (Photo credit: Wikimedia)

An anti-gun PAC, a GOP gay rights PAC and rival committees touting the 2016 presidential campaigns of conservative Ben Carson and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are among the top fundraising super PACs during the first quarter of this election year, an analysis by Sunlight's Real-Time FEC tracker shows.

The tracker, which makes it possible to quickly aggregate and sort campaign finance reports that come into the Federal Election Commission, shows that among the committees that file on a quarterly schedule — whose reports were due at midnight Tuesday — the Democratic Senate Majority PAC was by far the biggest money magnet, raking in more than $11 million between Jan. 1 and March 31. The next closest was American Unity PAC, a Republican pro-gay rights group. It picked up more than $2.7 million, almost entirely from two backers who made fortunes in investing: Paul Singer, the group's founder, and Seth Klarman, a hedge-fund manager and author.

The 10 super PACs that raised $1 million or more during the first three months of the year are notable for the extreme polarization they reflect among donors. Though the super PAC behind the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign-in-waiting made the list, it was bested in the fundraising sweepstakes by a group backing conservative physician Ben Carson. Other big money raisers included a Tea Party group, the gun control super PAC founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and two super PACs largely underwritten by Chicago-based conservatives: Ending Spending, backed by Cubs owner Joe Ricketts, and Liberty Principles Action Fund, which was founded by a Windy City talk show host and backed by Dick Uihlein, a packaging magnate with Tea Party leanings.

The quarterly filings present only a partial picture of the fundraising landscape. Many political action committees file on a monthly basis and their next reports are due at the Federal Election Commission on Sunday.

Below is a list of the top 10 fundraisers among super PACs that made their first quarterly filings as of last night. The complete list of top fundraisers for the first quarter is available here.

Larry Lessig

the darkest day

by Lessig at April 16, 2014 11:57 AM

i’m not sure where this goes— actually, that’s not true, I know where this doesn’t…

(Original post on Tumblr)

Sunlight Foundation

Today in #OpenGov 4/16/2014

by Matt Rumsey at April 16, 2014 11:47 AM

Keep reading for today's look at #OpenGov news, events and analysis including the importance of routine leaks, fighting lobbying secrecy in Europe, and building a culture around government data.series-opengov-today

National News

  • Plenty of super PACs like to spend their money on fancy lodgings and expensive meals. (Center for Public Integrity)
  • The National Technical Information Service charges for a wide array of government information that also happens to be freely available online and easy to find via Google search. Pressure from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) recently got them to pull reports that he had written. (Washington Times)
  • A new article in Georgia Law Review makes the case that routine leaks to Congress, the press, and advocacy groups play an important role in oversight and presidential power. The author focused on leaks related to policy decisions, not criminal wrongdoing or waste. (Fierce Government)

International News

  • A new campaign has launched in Europe to push candidates for European Parliament to advocate for transparency and stand up to corporate lobbyists and secrecy. (Tech President)
  • The Transparency International chapter in the Dominican Republic has taken its fight against corruption to the streets. It is painting murals to advocate againset corruption. (Transparency International)

State and Local News

  • Civic data standards could be a vital step to bring clarity in the growing movement towards data drive governance, but there has yet to be a wildly successful implementation. (Data-Smart City Solutions)
  • Building a government data culture is one of the most important things that an open data policy can accomplish. (Civic.io)
  • The Mississippi Ethics Commission ruled that public officials' text messages about public business are a matter of public record. (Washington Times/AP)

Do you want to track transparency news? You can follow the progress of relevant bills on our Scout page. You can also get Today in #OpenGov sent directly to your preferred news reader!

April 15, 2014

Open Secrets

John Bolton's Hawkish Fundraising

by Russ Choma at April 15, 2014 05:02 PM

Late last month, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton bragged that his new super PAC had had a "very good March."

AP454089346693.jpgNo wonder he was so cheerful. The same day he gave that interview, March 24, the super PAC took in a $500,000 check from Warren Stephens. Stephens, an Arkansas billionaire who runs an investment bank with stakes in energy and newspapers, among other things, wasn't the only donor to John Bolton Super PAC (yep, that's the name), but he was, by far, the largest.

Bolton told Breitbart News back in March that he would be using his super PAC to support hawkish Republicans -- anyone who would roll back Obama's foreign policy. So far that hasn't happened. According to the group's first quarter report, filed this morning, the super PAC raised $768,000 in the first three months of the year, adding to $455,000 already in its war chest. And, according to the filings, the super PAC spent just $89,000, all of it on administrative and consulting costs. 

Among the largest expenses were payments to Bolton's former deputy at his U.N. post, Sarah Tinsley. She's now running the PAC for him, after a stint as a lobbyist for the Mortgage Bankers Association.

With all that money coming in, and very little going out, Bolton's Super PAC is in the enviable position of having more than $1.1 million in cash to spend as primary season heats up.

And that's not the only fundraising operation bearing Bolton's name. A second outfit, John Bolton PAC, reported raising $304,000 in the first quarter. Even after spending $79,000 on a number of expenses very similar to those of the super PAC, it still has $318,000 on hand. It did not make any contributions to candidates in the first quarter of the year. 

Follow Russ on Twitter: @russchoma

Images: John Bolton speaking at last month's Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson). 

Sunlight Foundation

Sunlight and allies talk FARA reform with the Department of Justice

by Sean Vitka at April 15, 2014 05:00 PM

For all of the Foreign Agents Registration Act’s strengths, it can be a bummer. It requires more substantial disclosure from lobbyists taking foreign money than the typical domestic lobbying disclosure law — except there’s a loophole that allows these foreign lobbyists to file under that domestic law. It allows people to file online, but some people decide to handwrite it anyway. The filings are all put up on the FARA database, but filers can also submit paper forms, which end up getting scanned by the DOJ. That waste of resources produces filings that look like van Gogh lost a fight with a typewriter.

And there’s the borderline amusing fact that the upload system forces filers to convert usable, structured datasets into PDFs. Keyword: borderline.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Sunlight Foundation

Thankfully, the Department of Justice invited a number of public interest groups, including the Sunlight Foundation, OpenTheGovernment.org, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, EPIC and the Project on Government Oversight to brief Associate Attorney General Tony West on some of the transparency reforms the DOJ needs to implement. Sunlight focused on explaining the need for achieving the following broad goals, and a number of critical short-term fixes. Mr. West and his staff also told us of their plans to make the DOJ more transparent, in line with the President’s open government goals.

Broadly, the Department of Justice needs to pursue the following reforms of the Foreign Agents Registration Act:

1) Implement a new, modernized FARA collection and disclosure system that collects and releases detailed, structured data;

2) Until a modernized filing system can be implemented, there are a number of simple, specific improvements that the DOJ can and should effect as soon as possible; and

3) The DOJ should support efforts to close the Lobbying Disclosure Act loophole, which allows FARA agents to disclose less by filing as domestic lobbyists.

These are the specific solutions that could be made tomorrow, which are spelled out in greater detail in the brief (appended to the bottom of this post) that we submitted to the DOJ:

1) The DOJ should allow or require filing data as spreadsheets or through online forms. Right now, the system forces filers to convert these into PDF or image formats, crippling their functionality.

2) Fix the bulk data output function in document search, which is currently broken.*

3) Those who have access to a computer should be encouraged to type their filings.

4) Those who have access to the internet should be encouraged to file online.

5) Set data standard. For instance, filers should be required to report data in one currency, and should use full names of all people included in the filing.

6) The FARA Registration Unit should provide electronic access to all informational materials.

* To view the problem, go to http://www.fara.gov/search.html, search for documents, and then click “Click here for DOWNLOADABLE DATA spreadsheet.”

Here’s the brief we provided to Mr. West and his staff:

Sunlight Foundation Recommendations to the Dept. of Justice Regarding the Foreign Agents Registration Act

Civic.io

mheadd

by mheadd at April 15, 2014 02:50 PM

“‘Are people innately altruistic?’ is the wrong kind of question to ask. People are people, and they respond to incentives.” ...
Continue reading

Sunlight Foundation

Why is our tax code so lame? Or, what we can learn from Caterpillar and Dave Camp

by Lee Drutman at April 15, 2014 01:21 PM

Today being tax day, it’s a good time to take a few moments to reflect on some of the pathologies of the U.S. tax code and why they are not likely to change anytime soon.

Exhibit A is the case of Caterpillar, the latest multinational company to come under the scrutiny of Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and his Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Recently, Levin’s committee released a blockbuster of a report on how Caterpillar had used Swiss subsidiaries to save $2.4 billion in taxes. That’s a lot of money, that $2.4 billion. For those keeping score, it’s roughly 63 times the $37.9 million that Caterpillar has spent to lobby the federal government since 1998.

Caterpillar is part of a bigger story: the relationship between how much companies lobby and how little they pay in taxes. For example, of the eight companies that spent the most on federal lobbying between 2007 and 2009, seven decreased their overall tax rate between 2007 and 2010. And six of the "Big Eight" enjoyed a decrease of at least seven percentage points.

Or, consider the Fortune 100 companies that lobbied on the most tax bills between 2008 and 2010. The 10 companies that lobbied on 50 or more bills since 2008 paid an average effective tax rate of 17.1 percent in 2010. The 10 companies that lobbied on between 25 and 49 bills (one of which was Caterpillar) paid an average effective tax rate of 18.0 percent. The remaining publicly-traded Fortune 100 companies paid an average effective tax rate of 26.0 percent. The companies that lobbied on the most tax bills also have seen their tax rates decline the most since 2007 (see Figure 1 below).

A graph showing the tax rates among Fortune 100 companies. Figure 1. Graphic credit: Sunlight Foundation

The most comprehensive academic analysis of this question, published in the American Journal of Political Science, finds that “Firms that spend more on lobbying in a given year pay lower effective tax rates in the next year. Increasing registered lobbying expenditures by 1 percent appears to lower effective tax rates by somewhere in the range of 0.5 to 1.6 percentage points for the average firm that lobbies."

Some of the lobbying involves protecting the existing loopholes, like the ones that benefit Caterpillar. The rest involves pushing for small changes to the tax code to narrowly benefit companies or industries. According to a 2005 report from the President’s Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform: “Since the 1986 tax reform bill passed, there have been nearly 15,000 changes to the tax code – equal to more than two changes a day. Each one of these changes had a sponsor, and each had a rationale to defend it. Each one was passed by Congress and signed into law.” In 2011, the IRS’ own ombudsman estimated the length of the U.S. tax code to be 3.8 million words – or about 6 ½ times the length of the famous Russian novel War and Peace, for those reading at home.

Not all of Caterpillar’s lobbying budget goes to tax lobbying, of course. But of 165 lobbying reports that Caterpillar filed since 1998, 130 (79%) mention tax issues, making it the company’s top issue.

Looking more closely at these 130 lobbying reports, 46 mention either the phrase “international tax” or “international corporate tax.” Another 22 mention “subpart F," the section of the tax code that deals with controlled foreign corporations, which is what Caterpillar employed in avoiding those taxes.

Why reform never happens

Earlier this year, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., put forward a 979-page plan for tax reform. It was an ambitious plan, but it made the fatal mistake of every other tax plan before: It challenged the interests of an industry with a lobbying presence in Washington (well, actually, several industries). Therefore, it was dead on arrival.

As Alexander Furnas and I documented last year, pretty much every industry lobbies on taxes, and, as we wrote at the time, “Lobbyists representing pretty much the entire economy are well entrenched and prepared to defend a dense thicket of interlocking interests to protect favored loopholes, credits and other tax favors. Their attention is both wide and deep.”

Every year, it seems, there is yet another call for tax simplification, another bold plan or proposal to attempt to solve what experts can agree is “a hopelessly complex mess, antithetical to growth, and… crammed with conflicting incentives.” Every year, that proposal dies in committee, before anybody has to make the hard choices that would upset some industry or set of companies with lobbyists ready to pounce at the slightest suggestion that they would be targeted “unfairly.”

Caterpillar is just the latest of many companies to be called out by Levin’s subcommittee. Last year it was Apple. Before that it was Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard. Not much has happened to change how these companies operate and pay taxes. A good guess is that nothing will happen with Caterpillar either. After all, they’ve been lobbying to keep their loopholes in good shape for a long time, and they are probably pretty good at it by now.


So on this tax day I will leave you with three guesses.

My first guess is that Caterpillar will continue to lobby to prevent any changes to the loopholes it enjoys, and soon this latest report will be forgotten, just like the ones before it. After all, Levin — one of the few consistent crusaders against corporate tax avoidance — is retiring this year.

My second guess is that more companies will hire more accountants and lawyers and lobbyists to come up with more tax strategies, because when you have a tax code as big as we do, there are probably infinite ways to exploit it.

And my third guess is that senators and members of the House will continue to propose and then drop comprehensive tax reform. After all, if there weren’t the constant looming threat of tax reform, all those tax lobbyists would have a lot less to do.

I’d even be willing to put money on all that. As long as my earnings would be tax-deductible. I’ll ask my accountant to come up with a way. There’s gotta be something in that tax code to help me out…

Joshua Tauberer

Haggadah Hacking (or, What I Learned at Passover This Year)

by Joshua Tauberer at April 15, 2014 12:28 PM

Our family has gone through many haggadahs over the years at our Passover seders as my grandparents and relatives have tried to modernize (if not also shorten) our Passover experience. This year a reading conspicuously inserted into our haggadahs by my grandmother had relevance not only for the Passover story but also for civic hacking.

The traditional four children of the seder are a rhetorical device by which we remember the purpose of the Passover seder.  The “wicked” child is said to ask, “Why do you do this seder?” The response, we read, is that God freed us from bondage: us, not you. The implication is that with that attitude, God would have left the wicked child behind.

Last night we had four new children on a printout from this page by the American Jewish World Service. If you’re not familiar with Passover, you’ll need to know that the story of Passover is of how God righted the grave injustice of the slavery of the Jews in Egypt, lead the Jews to Israel, and punished the Egyptians with plagues for committing the injustice. Here were the new four children:

The Activist Child: “The Torah tells me, ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue,’ but how can I pursue justice?”

Empower him always to seek pathways to advocate for the vulnerable. As Proverbs teaches, “Speak up for the mute, for
the rights of the unfortunate. Speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy.”

The Skeptical Child: “How can I solve problems of such enormity?”

Encourage her by explaining that she need not solve the problems, she must only do what she is capable of doing. As we read in Pirke Avot, “It is not your responsibility to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

The Indifferent Child: “It’s not my responsibility.”

Persuade him that responsibility cannot be shirked. As Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The opposite of good is not
evil, the opposite of good is indifference. In a free society where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

For the Uninformed Child who does not know how to ask a question:

Prompt her to see herself as an inheritor of our people’s legacy. As it says in Deuteronomy, “You must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

These are the questions I hear often about the usefulness of hackathons and the purpose of meetups like Code for DC, and this provides some useful answers. I will be thinking about how to incorporate these thoughts into my own civic hacking.

Sunlight Foundation

Today in #OpenGov 4/15/2014

by Matt Rumsey at April 15, 2014 11:57 AM

Keep reading for today's look at #OpenGov news, events and analysis including Hillary, Martin O'Malley, and Nigerian contracting corruption.series-opengov-today

National News

  • Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, pulled in more than $140,000 from tech and internet PACs as his committee examined immigration and internet sales tax issues. (Roll Call)
  • As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton pushed Boeing products in front of audiences across the world as well as soliciting large donations from the company for the government. (Government Executive)
  • A conversation about the 2014 Digital Government Study, which found that despite widespread agreement on the need for it, digital government faces challenges at the agency level. (Fedscoop)

International News

  • Secret contracting processes can lead to unintended and terrible consequences, a problem illustrated with a tragic example out of Nigeria. (Open Knowledge)

State and Local News

  • Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley (D) speaks to the power of open data, citing recently released Medicare payment data as well as an example from his past as Mayor of Baltimore. (Huffington Post)
  • The Kentucky legislature approved a range of changes to state ethics laws following a sexual harassment scandal. (Washington Times/AP)

Events Today

Do you want to track transparency news? You can follow the progress of relevant bills on our Scout page. You can also get Today in #OpenGov sent directly to your preferred news reader!