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Fighting for government transparency

By Randy Barrett

It’s easy to get discouraged about the leverage moneyed interests enjoy in Washington. But there are organizations across the political spectrum fighting for information transparency, open government and improved representation for everyday citizens.

The most established and oft-cited group is the Center for Responsive Politics. It has tracked the flow of campaign dollars to members of Congress and offered its Open Secrets database online since 1996. The resource was visited seven million times in 2017 and appeared in 35,000 media stories, including ones published by Tarbell.

The nonprofit group is funded through individual donations and foundation grants.

CRP Executive Director Sheila Krumholz has found the organization embraced as a compatriot by activists across the political spectrum, including the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.

“I was amused but also, frankly, encouraged that they both would call us to thank us for our work,” said Krumholz. “Of course, as a nonpartisan organization, we couldn’t be affiliated with either — much less both — of their movements, but we appreciated that our data was useful to them and that we had earned their trust.”

The organization is evangelical about transparency but primarily focuses on gathering and presenting campaign finance and lobbying data. Krumholz concedes Open Secrets has impacted the citizenry more than Capitol Hill. “We’re not making Congress shake in its boots but we’re educating the public across the political spectrum.”

Following the money makes a difference in voters’ personal connections to their representatives, Krumholz adds. “There’s a never ending need for vigilance.”

The Sunlight Foundation actively advocates for transparency and open government but also tracks ethics quandaries and monitors federal data integrity. “We’re fighting on multiple fronts,” says Executive Director John Wonderlich.

That includes chronicling President Trump’s potential conflicts of interest and also pushing for reforms in the Freedom of Information Act law to make government data more easily available. The Foundation also wants the government to track political ad spending on the Internet the same way it does for political spots on television.

“Campaigns should be required to report to the Federal Election Commission” and the information should be put it online, says Wonderlich.

The Sunlight Foundation is also supporting passage of the Open Government Data Act that would require Uncle Sam to make information available in a machine-readable format and distribute it under open licenses.

Wonderlich says transparency can counteract corruption – or the appearance of it. As well, “It helps us understand how the system works so we can change it.” The essential problem is how politicians relate to money and politics. “Fundraising crowds out their ability to talk to regular people.”

The nonprofit group is also funded by individuals and foundations

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The R Street Institute is a libertarian think tank that supports free markets, limited government and solutions that take into account political realities, says Executive Director Eli Lehrer.

“Fundamentally we’re an organization on the right in almost every way,” he says. “We focus mostly on high complexity, low-salience things that are not number one and two in public mind.” That includes such varied issues as flood insurance, jail reform, income mobility, digital privacy and land conservation.

All of the Institute’s work depends on access to government data. “My personal view is that information about the operations of government should be highly transparent,” Lehrer says.

To that end, the group has supported opening Congressional Research Service reports to the public and making more congressional data available. And Lehrer is willing to work with other groups across the political spectrum, including the Sunlight Foundation, and the left-leaning Demand Progress, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Common Cause.

“We want to work with anyone and everybody who agrees with us on an issue,” explains Lehrer. The organization is funded by foundations and corporations, including Google, Hewlitt-Packard and State Farm.

The OpenGov Foundation is an unusual hybrid: a nonprofit technology company. It works to bridge the gap between citizens and government by improving communication and engagement.

“What we do is build critical infrastructure for representative democracy,” says Executive Director Seamus Kraft.

The idea for the organization was actually born in Congress in 2012 when Kraft was a staffer for Rep. Darryl Issa (R-CA). Kraft created a real-time blog platform called Madison to help lawmakers connect with constituents to create new online intellectual property legislation.

The organization is funded by the Consumer Technology Association, the Democracy Fund, the Knight Foundation and others.

Madison, which is open source, is currently in use by more than 50 state and county legislatures. The group is now developing a new system called Article 1 to address the problem of phone calls to lawmakers by designing new workflows and tracking.

“Ninety percent of calls don’t get logged or accounted for and it could be more,” says Kraft, who adds the current systems of constituent interaction on Capitol Hill are still based on postal mail.

Article 1 is presently being beta tested in five congressional offices.

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The Tax Law: What you can do

  1. Open Secrets is the primary public database for tracking campaign funding to congressional candidates as well as lobbying activity. Find out who is filling your representatives’ pockets here.
  2. The Sunlight Foundation fights for government transparency and is an ethics watchdog. Check it out here.
  3. The R Street Institute is dedicated to open government, free markets and finding solutions across the political spectrum. Find out more here.
  4. The Project on Government Oversight investigates corruption, misconduct and conflicts of interest. It started in 1981 breaking the story on outsized military spending – such as a $435 hammer. Find out more here.
  5. The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust focuses on government transparency, open records and ethics complaints. Check it out here.

Tarbell is nonpartisan. We do not endorse you taking these actions. But sharing them with you is part of our commitment to helping you find solutions. Email questions to questions@tarbell.org. And learn more about these solutions here