A helpful guide through masses of data? Or yet another cause for information anxiety?
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February 5, 1997|
In the State of the Union Address on Tuesday, February 4, President Clinton pledged to work with Congress to pass significant campaign-finance reform by Independence Day. That's all very admirable, but Clinton has made similar promises before, as has Congress. So what, if anything, is to be done? Since effective citizen protest and policing are impossible without an understanding of the intricacies of campaign financing and congressional lobbying, the Center for Responsive Politics -- a Washington-based research group that focuses on Congress and the "role that money plays in its elections and actions" -- offers a Web site that provides tools for citizens and the media to discover for themselves exactly what money in politics buys.
CRP's Web site, which has recently been revamped, expresses in its banner what it hopes citizens will do: "Follow the Money." Visitors to the site can, for example, track how members of the 104th Congress voted on twenty-eight different issues; search results are cross-referenced with campaign contributions that the lawmakers have received. In case after case it turns out that close votes were won by the side that received significantly more money from lobbying groups. Now citizens can discover with ease whether their representatives are serving the public's interests or those of lobbyists.
While several of the site's eleven sections are based on CRP's own research and data, other areas are designed to educate people about information on campaign finance that is available elsewhere. Journalists and incipient sleuths can visit the "Reporter's Guide," which lays out sources of donor information and explains how to set up databases to find suspicious trends in representatives' campaign-finance behavior. (One would think that most journalists already know how to conduct their own campaign-finance investigations, but one of the articles in this section, "Just Imagine: A Media Crusade Against Big-Money Politics," makes it clear that CRP believes the media could be doing much more to push politicians to clean up their acts.) Since most reform begins not on the national level but on the local and state levels, where citizens exert a more immediate influence, CRP provides information in "States Rights and Wrongs" on state initiatives and ways to contact campaign-disclosure agencies.
The current campaign-finance system has inspired a good deal of outrage but little change; since the system benefits those who are in a position to change it, reform from the inside is unlikely to occur without outside pressure. The organizers of CRP's Web site have realized that the Internet is a powerful medium through which to organize a grassroots crusade, and they offer the necessary tools to do so. By providing a flashlight with which to peer into the dusty corners where money and Congress intersect, CRP is banking on the fact that knowledge is power.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.