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Sunlight Foundation
Washington, DC

The Sunlight Foundation uses technology and ideas to make government transparent and accountable.

The Sunlight Foundation is:

A think-tank that develops and encourages new policies inside the government to make it more open and transparent.
A campaign to engage citizens in demanding the policies that will open government and hold their elected officials accountable for being transparent.
An investigative organization that uses the data we uncover to demonstrate why we need new policies that free government data.
A grant-giving institution that provides resources to organizations using technology to further our mission and create community
An open source technology community that revolves around the Sunlight Foundation’s core mission

Sunlight Foundation is not verified as a 501(c)3 organization.

Latest News

Oct 24, 2014

The header of Gov. Sean Parnell, R-Alaska, campaign website with a slogan above a deleted tweet saying 'if you believe slogans, you'll believe Bill Walker' his opponent in the gubernatorial race.
Header via and deletion via Politwoops.

This week's roundup of notable deletions archived on Politwoops include a campaign mocking the idea that people would believe a campaign slogan, a mysterious scolding and a childish spelling error.

We start with the deletion seen to the right from the campaign account of Gov. Sean Parnell, R-Alaska, that boldly encourages those who believe slogans to believe his opponent, Bill Walker. Parnell's own slogan "Building Alaska Together" are both the first words of his campaign Twitter bio and a prominent header image on every page of his campaign website. Parnell's campaign account did not respond to questions about why this tweet was deleted and if the candidate believes slogans.

The campaign account of Gwen Graham, a House challenger in Florida's 2nd District, deleted an ironic tweet scolding the Twitter account of her regional field director that said, "@Jd9yanki This isn't how you use Twitter, Jordan @steveschale." Graham's campaign account and those mentioned in the deletion did not respond to a request for comment, and it's unclear what the deletion was referencing or how Jordan should use Twitter.

Finally, this week the campaign account for Gov. Tom Corbett, R-Pa., deleted a tweet that said ".@WolfForPA is at your door and he’ll hoof and poof until he’s tripled your personal income tax." The misspelling of "huff" and "puff" in an attempt to cast his opponent Tom Wolf as the Big Bad Wolf from Three Little Pigs was deleted after being public for 56 minutes. Since a replacement never appeared, the sloppy tweet now resides in the Politwoops archive.

Have a lovely weekend, and if you have a moment please drop us an email if you notice Politwoops is missing any accounts!

Oct 24, 2014

a plane dropping money on symbols of the Democratic and Republican party

One billionaire has spent more than $70 million on the 2014 elections; Image credit: DonkeyHotey, Flickr

In a reversal from 2012, liberal billionaires top the list of biggest super PAC donors with a little more than two weeks to go before Election Day. Three of the top five givers lean Democrat, while the king of unlimited money mountain — environmental crusader Tom Steyer of California — is lapping the competition, a Sunlight analysis finds.

Taking advantage of the Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case, which opened the door to political spending by outside groups that can raise funds in unlimited amounts from individuals, corporations and labor unions, Republican billionaire donors and the super PACs they funded dominated the 2010 elections. In 2012, billionaire Democratic donors, many of whom decried the Citizens United ruling, lagged behind mega donors like Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, who combined to give more than $92 million. But in 2014, Democratic billionaires are the biggest givers, and dozens of super PACs have been the beneficiaries.

How much each billionaire really gives is unclear — political nonprofits that can influence elections without disclosing their donors are flush with cash, having spent $120 million on independent expenditures this cycle. While super PACs have no shortage of deep-pocketed donors, 2014's list of the biggest givers shows the absence of notable players in 2012. Some of the biggest conservative donors in the presidential race are gone or playing lesser roles in the midterms, as newcomers with deep pockets have rocketed to the top spots.

Steyer, who'd never contributed to a super PAC before March 2013, has given $70 million since, making him the largest single contributor to super PACs of all time. The vast majority of the former hedge fund manager's contributions have gone to NextGen Climate Action, the campaign committee he founded.

Steyer pledged to make climate change a key issue in the mid-terms, but has given to groups like the Senate Majority PAC which has supported Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. Landrieu — one of several incumbents in close races that Democrats hope to win in order to preserve their Senate majority — supports the Keystone Pipeline, the controversial project that would transport oil produced from Canadian tar sands to U.S. refineries. At one point, Steyer insisted he would not support candidates who favored building the pipeline.

While Steyer has not insisted on ideological purity, he has more than made good on other promises, including his pledge to give $50 million to NextGen. He gave $5 million to Senate Majority PAC, while NextGen gave Fair Share Action, American Bridge and She's Changed PAC donations.

The next biggest super PAC donor is former New York City mayor and publishing titan Michael Bloomberg, the Republican turned independent who now directs most of his support to Democrats. He's donated more than $20 million as of the latest reports. Together, Bloomberg and Steyer gave more than the rest of our top donors combined.

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These figures represent preliminary data from the FEC collected by Sunlight's Real-Time Federal Campaign Finance tracker. They are subject to change as refunds are processed by the FEC.

An important note: This list only compares individual super PAC donors. Unions, trade associations and corporations all make up other important pieces of the super PAC puzzle. The National Education Association, for example, the nation's largest teachers' union that overwhelmingly supports Democrats, contributed at least $17 million for super PACs this cycle. That's likely a lowball figure since numerous local NEA affiliates have also been funneling money into super PACs.

Conservative donors haven't abandoned super PACs, with seven giving $3 million or more. But political nonprofits — organizations that can influence elections without disclosing their donors to the Federal Election Commission — appear to be footing the bill for a larger chunk of the ad wars. How many big donors fund these dark money groups is unknown.

The two biggest conservative givers both hail from the financial world.

Paul Singer, a hedge fund manager, has been shoveling money into central players like American Crossroads ($2.6 million) while also venturing in to obscure House races to support pro-gay rights Republicans through his American Unity PAC. Robert Mercer, who serves as a co-CEO of hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, has given more than $8 million this cycle, spread among 13 different committees, the largest benefactor being the Koch-allied Freedom Partners Action Fund, which received $2.5 million from Mercer in September.

One of the biggest differences between our 2012 list and the current iteration is the lesser role of Mr. Super PAC himself, Sheldon Adelson, the conservative casino magnate. He and his wife Miriam spent more than $90 million last cycle to defeat Obama. Recently, Adelson wrote a $5 million check to the Congressional Leadership Fund. And media reports indicate the Las Vegas based Adelson has given hefty sums to groups that don't disclose their donors.

Ken Vogel of Politico reported in September that the 81 year old had given $10 million to Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, a political nonprofit that does not disclose its donors, and had promised millions more to former Republican lobbyist and Sen. Norm Coleman's American Action Network, another nonprofit organization.

But that's not the only shakeup among the conservative bench of millionaire donors. Two of 2012's most prolific givers, developer Bob Perry and Harold Simmons of the multifaceted Contran corporation, died in 2013, though Perry still made our list. Meanwhile TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts remains a prolific force on the campaign trail through Ending Spending Action Fund, a fiscal conservative group focused on the national debt and a major spender in several of this year's competitive Senate contests.

While media mogul Michael Bloomberg was originally elected as a Republican in New York City, we've classified Rudy Giuliani's successor as a Democratic giver since that's who the bulk of his money is supporting. Bloomberg made our list last cycle by giving $10 million while still in office, but since his term expired he's doubled that sum. At publication he had contributed $20 million to super PACs in the 2014 midterms.

Among them is Independence USA, a group Bloomberg started himself. Its website states the PAC "will focus on issues including gun laws, education policy and marriage equality," but it has been the first item on that list that has defined its electoral work this cycle. Bloomberg has also given $2.25 million to Women Vote!, the super PAC arm of Emily's List. He's also doled out $250,000 contributions to former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords' Americans for Responsible Solutions and the League of Conservation Voters Victory Fund.

While he's tilted heavily to Democrats this cycle, Bloomberg's political affiliates have come to the aid of some moderate Republicans, including a recent $1.9 million outlay on behalf of GOP Rep. Bob Dold of Ohio and more than $700,000 for Republican Mike Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania. He also gave $250,000 to the pro-Thad Cochran Mississippi Conservatives.

Rounding out the liberal givers are NewsWeb executive Fred Eychaner and math wiz-cum-hedge fund manager James Simons, who founded Renaissance Technologies and whose multimillion dollar contributions have helped fuel Democratic super PACs House Majority and Senate Majority PAC.

Unfortunately, a large amount of political money remains hidden in nonprofit organizations. The difficulty in tracking the new political beasts is part of their appeal. Defenders of dark money argue that more rigorous disclosure rules would expose donors to harassment and stifle political speech. While Sunlight and other disclosure advocates have called for more transparency of the donors behind these electorally active groups, it doesn't look they will be going away any time soon.

Oct 24, 2014

Photo credit: *n3wjack's world in pixels/Flickr

As open data advocates, we seek to achieve public access to the best quality data we can get. One of the critical dimensions of a dataset’s quality concerns its granularity: the number of individual observations that a dataset aggregates together in individual cells. Microdata —data which is not aggregated at all, but which is available at the level of the individual observation — is the most granular data. Where this data is available openly, this is “open data at the power of one” — data which allows us to query individual cases, giving us our best chance at getting a true picture of the empirical reality the data represent.

Why is microdata so powerful? For many of the most social valuable kinds of data use, the more granular the data, the better it is. A useful analogy for understanding the value of high granularity lies in comparing it to high resolution digital photography. Images with more pixels per inch are clearer and easier to interpret; they can be enlarged to look at smaller details, and they offer a more precise representation of the object they depict. More detailed data generally offers a similar set of advantages. Highly granular datasets allow researchers to test more detailed causal theories and learn about more specific outcomes. Across the fields of criminal justice, education, health and social service delivery, researchers have the potential to achieve life-changing social advances with access to more microdata. For app developers, highly granular datasets enable the creation of more precisely-tailored services, providing greater value to end users. In both cases, microdata allow the highest possible granularity for their respective uses.

Because more granular data enables a broader variety of uses, open data advocates tend to seek access to more data at higher levels of granularity. So if the utility of microdata is so high, why is it often difficult to achieve open access to individual-level datasets?

The answer is that one person’s individual-level observation is another person’s private information. For many decades, U.S. laws have worked to define and defend a right to individual privacy that concerns not just our immediate physical privacy but also — as the potential power inherent in holding data became clear — the privacy of certain kinds of information. As a result of significant federal laws like the Privacy Act of 1974, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, Americans enjoy the right to prevent the open disclosure of many kinds of data that would allow others to identify and learn personal information about them. Even beyond the legal restrictions, however, we have a broad ethical interest in making sure that private individuals are treated with respect as human beings, not just as generators of data. Although it’s not the only way to accomplish this end — and it’s not without some significant downsides — our existing privacy protections are the major way we currently demonstrate our interest in making sure data-sharing does not harm individuals.

The conflict between data users’ desire for individual-level data and our laws and norms of individual privacy protection leads to some critical questions for open data advocates. What exactly are the best current policies and practices for balancing our need for improved open data against the claims of individual privacy? And how do we address the competing moral claims, on the one side to the good of public knowledge and on the other to the good of personal privacy?

To help inform this critical conversation, we want to begin seeking answers to these questions. Please join the Sunlight Foundation as we explore the challenges and opportunities of the current legal, technical and social landscape of 21st Century microdata. In our new ongoing, periodic series, “Opendata1,” we will investigate the important questions facing open data advocates at the microdata frontier.

Oct 24, 2014

A newspaper with the headline Open Gov

National News

  • President Obama has made reducing improper payments across the Federal government a priority. That focus is paying off, according to a new OMB memo that includes some new guidance on how to further trim the rate of improper payments. (Fierce Government)
  • A Federal Advisory Committee is building recommendations to streamline the FOIA process. Some members are looking to recently passed open government legislation, like the DATA Act, for inspiration. (Federal Computer Week)
  • The government uses a "jungle of identifiers" to track companies. It's time to simplify the system and move towards a common, interoperable, open entity ID system. (Data Transparency Coalition)
  • This piece identifies three major areas that Federal managers will have to address before successfully implementing the DATA Act. (Nextgov)
  • Google has increased its PAC spending at a rapid clip since it first dipped its toes into the political waters with $37,000 in donations in 2006. This year the company is on pace to top $1.6 million. (National Journal)
  • Transparency International is out with a report on the French lobbying disclosure regime and it finds a lot to be desired. The report finds an overall lack of transparency in the French political system. (The Local)
State and Local News
  • Advisory Neighborhood Commission's are the most local form of government in DC and they are notoriously opaque. But, a few elected commissioners and citizens are trying to change that. ( DC)
  • The Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives, Robert W. Harrell Jr., pled guilty on six charges of using campaign funds for personal purposes and resigned his office. His sentence was suspended and it appears that he may be prepared to cooperate in a wider corruption investigation. (New York Times)
  • Corporations and advocacy groups are spending generously to influence ballot measures around the country. So far nearly $120 million has been spent on advertising on these measures. (Public Integrity)
Do you want to track transparency news? You can follow the progress of relevant bills, court cases, and regulations using Scout. You can also get Today in #OpenGov sent directly to your preferred news reader. If you would like suggest an event, please email by 7 am on the Monday prior to the event. 

Oct 23, 2014

If one recent evening newscast is any indication, Philadelphia voters may be longing for used car ads and payday loan pitches — and maybe for some unbiased political reportage.

In the course of one 30-minute newscast on KYW last week, viewers were bombarded with no fewer than 11 political ads, most of them negative. The news program, which aired at 6 p.m. on Oct. 16, featured no political news stories, although in three weeks voters in the region will be heading to the polls to make decisions on the contests that were the subject of the political ads: for governor and state Senate in Pennsylvania; for U.S. Senate in Delaware; and for the U.S. House in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

This particularly vivid example of the way propaganda can trump objective political news in the late stages of a campaign comes from research undertaken for the Philly Political Media Watch, a joint project of the Internet Archive, the Sunlight Foundation, Philadelphia's Committee of Seventy and the University of Delaware's Center for Community Research and Service. The project, which is being funded by the Democracy Fund and the Rita Allen Foundation, aims to provide a comprehensive analysis of the political media — and the money behind it -- in one of the country's largest television markets.

Using Federal Communications Commission data made available for analysis by Political Ad Sleuth, we are already able to quantify the biggest winners of campaign 2014: Local TV stations that are now struggling to find enough air time to accommodate the candidates and outside interest groups. The 30-second spots that aired on KYW's evening newscast on Oct. 16 cost between $700 and $765 apiece and were part of larger ad buys that netted the station a total of more than $517,000.

Sunlight has reached out to KYW for comment on the lack of political coverage and will update this post if we hear back. Meanwhile the University of Pennsylvania's respected political media analyst Kathleen Hall Jamieson was less than impressed with the disparity: "Instead of an all-news channel for news junkies, a channel for ad junkies!" she quipped.

While perhaps unusual in frequency, the political spots that aired during KYW's Oct. 16 broadcast are representative of the content and tone of ads the research team is seeing in Philadelphia, a TV market that covers three states and, therefore, an unusually wide span of races.

Here's a minute-by-minute look at how the evening went for viewers who were not driven out of their living rooms by the political propaganda:

No. 1 — 6:11 p.m. A satirical spot accusing Tom Wolf, the Democratic candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, of planning to raise taxes. The spot, purchased by current GOP Gov. Tom Corbett's re-election campaign for $765, was part of a larger one-week, $77,445 buy for 56 spots on KYW.

No. 2 — 6:12 p.m. Tom MacArthur, a Republican congressional candidate for a south Jersey congressional seat, is depicted as anti-women's rights in an ad purchased by his Democratic opponent, Aimee Belgard. The Belgard-MacArthur race for the seat being vacated by retiring Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., is arguably the most competitive in the Philadelphia market. Sunlight's Real-Time Federal Campaign Finance tracker shows a late influx of money from big outside spenders, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the conservative dark money group Crossroads GPS. The DCCC cosponsored another airing of Belgard's anti-MacArthur ad later in the same KYW newscast. The spots cost $765 each. Belgard had two concurrent contracts with KYW that week, a $3,600 buy for six spots and a $7,625 buy for 12 spots.

No. 3 — 6:13 p.m. On the heels of the Belgard ad, viewers were greeted by Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., touting his record on behalf of veterans. Fitzpatrick, who is running for a fourth term, paid $700 for the spot, part of a four-week, $102,285 buy for 93 spots on KYW.

After a 10-minute break for news, weather and traffic, the onslaught began again.

No. 4 — 6:21 p.m. Belgard's anti-MacArthur ad runs again. It's identical to the earlier spot, except that the name of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee appears along side that of her campaign committee as a co-sponsor.

No. 5 — 6:22 p.m. A negative ad purchased by Mark Aurand, Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania's state Senate, blasts GOP state Rep. Mario Scavello for his positions against abortion rights. The ad, which cost Aurand's campaign $700, is part of a one-week, $14,500 buy for 32 spots.

No. 6 — 6:23 p.m. Donald Norcross, a New Jersey state senator running for an open U.S. House seat, airs a positive ad about his record as a lawmaker. Norcross paid $765 for the spot, part of a two-week, $100,040 contract for 94 spots on KYW.

No. 7 — 6:24 p.m. John Kane, a Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania state Senate, sponsors an ad showing a figure running down darkened corridors to attack his Republican opponent Tom McGarrigle. The voice over uses the word "lying" several times. Kane's campaign committee paid $700 for the spot, part of one-week, $44,825 contract for 85 spots.

No. 8 — 6:26 p.m. Veteran Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., makes a 30-second pitch for his re-election based on his environmental record. The spot cost $765 and was part of a one-week $48,650 buy for 66 spots.

No. 9 — 6:27 p.m. In that New Jersey House race, the McArthur campaign fires back with an ad that minces no words about Democrat Belgard, calling her a "dishonest politician." The spot, which cost the GOP candidate, $765, was part of a one-week, $45,775 contract for 58 spots.

No. 10 — 6:28p.m. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, touts his bid for re-election to the U.S. Senate. Coons' ad, a positive spot which presents his work on behalf of children, cost $765 and is part of a one-week, $43,380 contract for 66 spots.

No. 11 — 6:29 p.m. Ryan Costello, a Republican hoping to replace retiring Rep. Jim Gerlach, R, in a suburban Philadelphia congressional seat, has a few good words to say about himself, but adds a few digs about his Democratic opponent, Iraq war vet Manan Trivedi. Costello's campaign paid $700 for the ad, part of a two-week, $29,650 contract for 40 spots.

Oct 22, 2014

Moments from Buntwani!

What is the difference between opengov and opendata? Are there tech tools that can help with civic engagement? How can we open up PDFs? Why don’t NGOs and academia also open up their data?

These were the questions we contemplated two weeks ago — not in San Francisco or Washington, D.C., but in Nairobi, Kenya — for the inaugural Buntwani conference hosted by the Open Institute. I had the pleasure of joining over a hundred participants for the two-day conference aimed at strengthening citizen engagement through the use of technology. The invitation-only event brought together thought leaders, government officials, civil society organizations, the private sector and media groups to discuss challenges, share successes and learn more about the open data in Africa. Amidst the lightning talks and breakout sessions, it became evident to me that the challenges we face in the U.S. when it comes to government engaging with the public (and vice versa) are actually global challenges we face the world over.

Opening up data

Kenya has an open data portal and so do a number of African countries and civil society organizations. The jury is still out as to whether these portals are successful (check out Sunlight’s review of Kenya’s open data portal). At Buntwani, the participants from civil society provided some self reflection in the Technology and Innovation session on how the sector is particularly ineffective at using government data, despite it being open, due to a lack of resources to access the data or the capacity to know what to do with it. While this is a major challenge, strategic partnerships with the private sector and social entrepreneurs was suggested as a potential solution. Another intermediary step for these resource-strapped open data proponents could be to create project inspirations or a wish list for what can and should be done with the data (here’s an example of some of the project inspirations we created based on our data).

Additionally, there is a surprising amount of data that is open without necessarily being hosted in a portal. In Nigeria, Dr. Omenogo Mejabi at the University of Ilorin has been analyzing the use of the Online National Budget of Nigeria and have hosted a hackathon and various presentations to engage the public. And if you do use open data, Linet Kwamboka, the open data project manager at the Kenya ICT Authority, expressed how it is useful to let government officials know about these efforts to help strengthen the mandate and prove the utility of open data internally.

Offline vs. online

Another theme we explored and discussed at Buntwani was the challenges and tension between offline vs. online when it comes to citizen engagement. Many participants stressed the strength and prevalence of the oral culture in Africa and the need to preserve and utilize that method of communication. Others emphasized the ability of technology to multiply the reach of traditional engagement and its efficiency in providing accurate and real-time information. In my panel on “The Role of Citizen Engagement in Open Governance,” we also discussed the challenge of the digital divide in providing online resources to an offline audience.

Discussing opengov issues on “The Role of Citizen Engagement in Open Governance.”

For me, one of the highlights of the conference was being able to hear from Chief Kariuki on how he is doing both. The local administrator of Lanet Umoja in Nakuru North District (about 100 miles away from Nairobi), Kariuki has managed to merge offline with online. Kariuki, nicknamed the "Tweeting Chief," uses social media to connect with his almost 30,000 residents on public safety, public works and public engagement. What is ironic is that most of his villagers do not have smart phones but rather feature phones and mostly communicate via SMS. Local residents subscribe to Kariuki’s tweets through a Twitter short code that allows them to receive his 140 character tweets free via SMS.

In his lightning talk, the Chief explained how his villagers call and text him to help broadcast vital information. In one example, a resident riding a local bus was hijacked by robbers. He immediately texted the Chief who was able to blast a message via Twitter to all his followers asking for assistance and notifying them of the location of the bus. The assailants, who conveniently also subscribes to Kariuki’s tweets, received the message and immediately fled the premises. While crime fighting is definitely an atypical example of technology enhancing civic engagement, Kariuki’s story highlights the potential for “online” enhancing “offline” and vice versa.

Tech as a gateway

Technology is often more effective when it is trying to solve a specific problem in the civic engagement process. A perfect example is the GotToVote project initiated by Code4Kenya and implemented by the Open Institute. In 2012, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission released all of the country’s voter registration sites in a giant PDF. Citizens complained about the difficulty downloading and then identifying their local voter registration sites. The GotToVote project was born when the Code4Kenya fellows scraped the data and developed a website to allow anyone to find their nearest registration site by the click of a button. The project was so successful, it has been subsequently deployed in four countries and adopted by the Malawi government as the official platform for voter registration information.

While Buntwani was a profound conference for highlighting the success stories in open data, it also served to foster the much needed dialogue on the concerns and obstacles of citizen engagement with the use of technology on the continent. The Open Institute has been a galvanizing force in convening the inaugural event and judging from the success of Buntwani, will be a leader and convener of open data for years to come.

You read more about the conference here and be sure to check out their Storify here.


Having a silly moment with the Open Institute staff, post-conference.

Oct 22, 2014

A newspaper with the headline Open Gov

National News

  • A subcommittee of the Freedom of Information Act Advisory Council is launching a project to survey the current state of FOIA oversight across the Federal government. (Fierce Government)
  • Despite the midterm elections keeping members of Congress away from Washington for large swaths of time during the second part of this year, lobbying firms across the city saw their revenues rise in the third quarter. (The Hill)
  • Left leaning groups held a super PAC cash advantage throughout much of the year, but as the election draws closer conservative groups are catching up. (POLITICO)
  • The White House launched its first website 20 years ago this week. Enjoy this blast from the past. (National Journal)
  • Super PACs are required to report their donors, but a loophole in the law regulating them allows the committees to conceal donors that give in the few weeks leading up to election day until December, more than a month after votes have been cast. (Public Integrity)
  • The Financial Action Task Force, made up of government officials and experts, are meeting in Pars this week in part to adopt guidance on beneficial ownership and company transparency. Unfortunately, the creation of this document has been conducted in relative secrecy. (Transparency International)
State and Local News
  • A group pushing for paid sick day legislation in Florida is suing the mayor of Orange County, alleging that her office used Dropbox, the could based-file sharing service, to evade public records laws and provide lobbyists with inside access. (PRWatch)
  • The Supreme Court will consider a case questioning whether or not local laws that allow police to seize hotel guest registries without a warrant violate the 4th amendment. (Ars Technica)
  • The Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives was charged with 23 felony counts 2 weeks before election day. The charges include allegations that he voted for legislation despite conflicts of interest and using his public office for personal gain. (New York Times)
Events Today Do you want to track transparency news? You can follow the progress of relevant bills, court cases, and regulations using Scout. You can also get Today in #OpenGov sent directly to your preferred news reader. If you would like suggest an event, please email by 7 am on the Monday prior to the event. 

Oct 21, 2014

Paul Ryan speaking at CPAC in 2013
Paul Ryan's leadership PAC spent heavily on consultants and contributions to other members last quarter; Image credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

In the months leading up the Nov. 4 elections, members of congress are furiously raising money for their own re-election contests, on top of their full-time gigs as legislator. So why would Wisconsin GOP Rep. Paul Ryan go the extra yard of raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for other members? While partisan camaraderie and goodwill may play, it's likely that Ryan's play for the Ways and Means Committee's chairmanship has something to do with it. In the midst of a midterm election's waning days, Ryan — and others with leadership or even White House ambitions — have been doling out serious cash in direct contributions and fundraising expenses to help out their fellow members.

A leadership PAC is different from a congressman's campaign committee — it's the campaign vehicle used to fundraise and donate to other members. Ryan's leadership PAC, Prosperity Action Inc., has spent more than any other leadership committee from July through September at over $860,000 — including $300,000 in direct contributions to candidate committees, state parties and Republican joint fundraisers. The bulk of that cash, however, went to "operating expenditures," an elastic catch-all for other kinds of spending.

The rest of the list reads like a who's who of congressional power players, both those who already rank highly among party leadership: House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Fla., as well as several whose names frequently come up in discussions of 2016 contenders, such as Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky. — number two on our list — and Marco Rubio, R-Fla. The list underscores just how important raising money is in Washington.

A closer look at the campaigns' financial reports highlights the different ways in which a member can leverage the power of the super PAC.

For Ryan, it appears his leadership committee is tackling the task of testing the 2016 waters. Prosperity Action's major investments include web development, media consulting, online advertising and copies of Ryan's book (royalty excluded) for campaign donors.

Likewise for Rand Paul's Reinventing A New Direction PAC (RAND PAC), which devoted around $66,000 to telemarketing consulting and $30,000 to website

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's MC PAC, meanwhile, spends more like a vehicle for fêting other members, a key component of McCarthy's new role. MC PAC's most expensive disbursements over the past three months include chartered airfare, lodging, catering and the services of fundraising consultants.

An invitation from the Political Party Time archive for a fundraiser in May of last year asked for contributions of up to $42,000 at a joint party in Costa Mesa, Calif. for the Majority Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee.

One name we didn't expect to see on this list is McCarthy's predecessor as Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, who has moved on to greener pastures since being blindsided in Virginia's 7th District Republican primary by college professor Dave Brat.

ERIC PAC's spending has slowed down considerably since Cantor left office to join investment firm Moelis & Co., but fundraising -- in the form of transfers from joint fundraising committees that the ex-Majority Leader benefitted from -- has stayed strong. Cantor's leadership PAC raised just shy of $120,000 in the first two weeks of October, and had $568,000 in the bank on Oct. 15. In contrast, Cantor's candidate committee had less than $50,000 on Sept. 30, when it last filed. Leadership PAC money can be retained by members after they retire; one possibility is that Cantor will use his PAC to continue winning friends and influencing people on Capitol Hill.

Some former members who reenter the private sector dissolve their leadership PACs and transfer the funds to charities or other campaigns. While others keep their old leadership committees alive years after leaving congress.

Former Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., for example, raised and spent leadership PAC money after starting a new career as a registered lobbyist. As Eric Lipton of the New York Times reported in 2010, many of the recipients of Lott's leadership PAC contributions were on committees with jurisdiction over Lott's clients.

For members who want to advance their careers on and off the Hill, a leadership PAC certainly doesn't hurt.