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Cost of Wars Since 2001

The FCC’s opportunity to bring all political ad spending online

In early August, the Federal Communications Commission responded to a petition by the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause and the Sunlight Foundation calling for a rule that would bring cable and satellite providers’ already-existing political ad files online. It’s the same requirement that all television broadcasters now comply with.

The FCC quickly acted on our petition, and issued a notice of proposed rulemaking just one week after receiving our petition. For those familiar with the FCC, the speed at which the agency moved on this was shocking.

And even better? They called for comments on whether to bring radio ad files online, too. Ours are here.

Another (unexpected) supporter of the FCC’s plan? The National Association of Broadcasters which was extraordinarily opposed to putting television broadcasting political files online. They are demanding “regulatory parity.”

We’re still going through the comments, but opponents of disclosure generally argue that putting these files online will (1) be hard and (2) reveal company secrets. No matter how true (1) may be, it’s vastly less impressive than how difficult it is for the public to access these files. To get them in their current, paper version, requires showing up to the broadcast center (do you know where your satellite provider’s headquarters is?) during regular business hours, possibly paying a fee, and going through the files one by one, station by station. They’re in the best position to make this change, and they’re the only ones with the information. And, let’s be honest, who keeps paper records anymore, anyway? Number two is a bit of a slicker argument, saying that online publishing reveals too much about what the station selling ad time charges for ad time. This might make sense, if the files weren’t public anyway. In other words, if anyone is running from station to station, it isn’t the researcher or journalist or citizen — it’s the companies who make billions every year from ad spending.

Ultimately, the proof will be in the pudding. Rulemaking takes time — a lot more than a week — but the swift response is a welcome amount of attention to a critical issue. If the FCC does decide to require cable, satellite and radio companies to put their files online, we may have an unprecedented view into political spending across all major media platforms (the biggest by revenue is broadcast television) by the 2016 elections, which we’ll now call the oncoming storm.

Take a look at our comments below:

CLC CC Sunlight Radio Political File Comments Final Sunlight Foundation


This Week in Politwoops: a lone cone, puppies and a pub

Deleted photo via Politwoops. In this week’s roundup of deleted tweets from politicians archived by Politwoops, we examine a number of recent examples of messaging changes that came in the form of image deletions and replacements. We star… [...]

Influence Analytics: Climate change and narcotics occupy feds

Smoke stacks. Photo credit: Library of Congress

Calculating the social cost of carbon: In a report released August 25, the General Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that the White House’s analysis of the politically charged “social cost of carbon” (reported here by Sunlight) estimate passes muster. The review was requested by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and Reps. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. and John Culberson, R-Texas, all harsh critics of President Barack Obama’s efforts to combat climate change. Vitter and Culberson count the oil and gas industry among their major donors: Vitter has gotten more than $1 million; and Culberson, nearly $600,000. Hunter’s top contributing industries include manufacturers, who have sent his campaigns more than $85,000. The 32-page report documents the by-the-book process used by the White House coordinating with other agencies to calculate the estimate, while also disclosing “several limitations of the estimates and areas that the working group identified as being in need of additional research.” (Credit: Scout, Influence Explorer.)

Restricting common narcotic pain killers: Vicodin and other common hydrocodone combination products prescribed widely to patients for pain will now be considered ”class II” drugs subject to stricter regulation, according to a new final rule published by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) on August 22. This action follow’s the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) recommendation last year that the drugs be reclassified because of increasing concern “about the abuse and misuse of opioid products, which have sadly reached epidemic proportions in certain parts of the United States.” While most of the commenters on the earlier proposed rule appeared to support the decision, not everyone was happy. For example, drug maker Actavis in April wrote the DEA, “if finalized, this action would impose significant and burdensome new regulatory controls and administrative, civil, and criminal sanctions on companies that handle….HCPs.” These comments were prepared by one of the lobbying firms hired by the company, Arent Fox, whose lobbyists include former Rep. Phil English, R-Pa. Actavis has been in the news lately as a poster company for the controversial tax avoidance strategy of “tax inversion,” where a company locates base operations overseas to avoid paying full U.S. tax rates. (Credit: Docket Wrench, Influence Explorer.)

Comments still rolling in on greenhouse gases, cigars: Last week the Environmental Protection Agency received more than 3,000 more comments on a proposal to regulate greenhouse gases emitted by existing power plants, described in our report here. Overall, Regulations.gov reports nearly 35,000 comments received since the proposal was issued in early July. Another top magnet for comments, garnering more than 4,700, was the FDA’s proposal to regulate cigars, as we reported here. (Credit: Docket Wrench.)


OpenGov Voices: Visualizing the US budget and other civic tools

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… [...]

Today in #OpenGov 8/29/2014

Keep reading for today’s look at #OpenGov news, events, and analysis, including a military grade lobbying effort, teaching OAS members about transparency, and balancing bike share.   A newspaper with the headline Open Gov

National News

  • An Executive Order, 12333, issued by President Reagan is one of the foundational documents of the current surveillance system. Some say that it allows a wide ranging and unconstitutional amount of data collection. (Ars Technica)
  • Last year stories emerged about an Iowa State Senator that was paid by Ron Paul’s Presidential campaign to switch his endorsement from Michelle Bachmann to Paul. Kent Sorenson denied the allegations at the time, both in public and in court. But this week, he pleaded guilty to accepting money from both campaigns and eventually switching sides when Paul offered him a better deal. (Washington Post)
  • The tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri publicized the military grade equipment being used in many police departments across the country. Now, police associations are gearing up for a major lobbying fight to save their access to military surplus like grenade launchers, automatic weapons, and heavily armored vehicles. (The Hill)

International News

  • The Organization of American States is launching a virtual class to teach more than 200 officials from the region “strategies for open government in the Americas”. (NFOIC)

State and Local News

  • Email retention practices in Pennsylvania have advocates and archivists worried that seemingly innocuous, but potentially historically relevant emails may be deleted without a second thought. Currently, employees are encouraged to clean up their emails on a regular basis and archives are only kept for 5 days, putting decisions about the future value of these records in the hands of those that originally created them rather than an impartial professional. (Government Technology)
  • Bike share systems are becoming popular in cities around the world. Making sure that users can access and park bikes when they want to is creating some interesting problems for mathematicians, who are working up algorithms to ensure that systems are properly balanced, ensuring customer satisfaction and saving operators time and money. (Government Executive)

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 mrumsey@sunlightfoundation.com by 7 am on the Monday prior to the event. 


Today in #OpenGov 8/28/2014

Keep reading for today’s look at #OpenGov news, events, and analysis, including brewery politics, an “election” in Turkey, and Civic Ninjas.  A newspaper with the headline Open Gov

National News

  • Despite an increasing amount of frustration with Congress and politics, campaign finance reform has not become a major campaign issue. (Washington Post)
  • New Belgium Brewery, America’s third largest craft brewery, is dipping its toes into the political waters with a new PAC. The company plans to focus on brewery specific legislation as well as topics, such as water quality and sustainable transportation, that it sees as key to its mission and morals. (National Journal)
  • A new health data reporting tool that allows organizations using it to easily get their public data online. Various states are now using the standardized system. (Government Technology)
  • Consumer’s have personal data about their habits sold, traded, and used for a variety of reasons. There is little transparency in this process and consumers have little access to information about themselves. This post tries to outline a reasonable system of transparency for consumer data. (Ad Exchanger)

International News

  • Turkish citizens participated in their first direct presidential election this month, but there have been a number of red flags indicating that the vote was not as open or transparent as it should have been. (Transparency International)

State and Local News

  • New York City is embracing the positive impact that easy to understand transportation data can have on the average commuter’s day. The City’s Department of Transportation has a mobile friendly site that puts all that information in one place. (Government Executive)
  • Civic Ninja’s, a civic hacking group, is looking to build long term solutions with a focus on disaster response and recovery efforts. (Government Technology)

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 mrumsey@sunlightfoundation.com by 7 am on the Monday prior to the event. 


Today in #OpenGov 8/27/2014

Keep reading for today’s look at #OpenGov news, events, and analysis, including dissapearing court documents, a framework for assesing social value in open data, and news from several governors races.A newspaper with the headline Open Gov

National News

  • Most Inspectors General have complied with a 2012 law that required them to provide information about the rights and protections afforded to whistleblowers and appoint an ombudsman to oversee the effort. However, a new report found that several high profile agencies, including DHS and USAID, have done little to surface relevant information online. (POGO)
  • Despite statements decrying the McCutcheon decision, Senate Democrats are embracing the new mega-fundraising committees that arose in its wake. (Public Integrity)
  • More than a decade’s worth of documents from four US appeals and one bankruptcy court have been taken offline. The documents were removed as part of an “upgrade” to the PACER system. Don’t worry though, the public interest has been upheld, assuming you can fly to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and DC to request the documents in person. (Ars Technica)

International News

  • A new paper in the Future Internet Journal attempts to outline a framework for taking social value into account while open data initiatives make release decisions. (The Gov Lab)
  • If Paraguay’s President signs a pending access to information law, the country will become the 100th in the world to institutionalize the Right to Know. (Access Info)

State and Local News

  • Governor Andrew Cuomo’s (D-NY) questionable handling of corruption in his state has cost him the endorsement of the New York Times in the his upcoming reelection bid. (New York Times)
  • There is a duel afoot in New Hampshire as both major parties accuse each other of improper spending, fundraising, and campaign finance reporting in the governor’s race. (Washington Times)
  • Some of Chicago’s open data Gurus sat down with Code for America to discuss the technical aspects of opening data. (Code for America)

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 mrumsey@sunlightfoundation.com by 7 am on the Monday prior to the event. 


Event: The Price We Pay for Money’s Influence on Politics

The logos of the Sunlight Foundation and ReThink Media

The height of the 2014 midterm election season is nearly upon us, generating unheard of sums of political spending, often coming from “dark money” sources that do not have to disclose their donors. In addition, there is a risk of five-, six- or even seven-figure hard money contributions flowing to the political parties and party leadership. In competitive Senate races, it’s nearly impossible to track who’s giving to whom in real time since Senate candidates still file their campaign finance reports on paper, delaying disclosure. Meanwhile, reports of a steady decrease in lobbying points not to a reduction in K Street’s power, but rather to more and more influence peddlers going underground.

On Sept. 16, the Sunlight Foundation and ReThink Media will host a special morning conversation with Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Angus King, I-Maine, (invited) followed by a panel of money-in-politics experts from nonprofits, newsrooms and academia. We will discuss the quickly changing landscape of political spending, how it’s getting harder to track influence and the reforms being debated right now in Congress to level the playing field.

The price we pay for the current campaign finance system is high: A dearth of accountability from our elected officials; domination of political speech by a limited number of the super wealthy; and increased voter apathy are just a few symptoms. Join this important discussion by RSVP’ing today. Space is limited, sign up soon!


Today in #OpenGov 8/26/2014

Keep reading for today’s look at #OpenGov news, events, and analysis, including big spending on digital political ads, more on Todd Park’s career change, and a state checkbook in Ohio.   

A newspaper with the headline Open Gov

National News

  • Digital advertising is up big this election season. Digital advertising is expected to be up over 1,000 percent since 2010, when tablet computers were just getting started. (POLITICO)
  • The FBI has updated their record system to house more than 30 million records and 80 million fingerprint cards digitally. (NextGov)
  • Chief Technology Officer Todd Park is stepping down. What does that mean for the future of Federal technology efforts and the position itself? (Washington Post)

International News

  • Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century examined the perils of widening inequality around the world, but what about corruption? This post goes into that “elephant in the room”. (Transparency International)

State and Local News

  • Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel is lobbying heavily for legislation that would put the “state checkbook” online. The plan is based on programs in place in Texas, Nebraska, and Idaho. (Hudson Hub Times)
  • The Guardian, the Oklahoma Observer, and the ACLU are teaming up to pursue greater access to information about executions performed by the state in the wake of a high profile botched attempt earlier this year. (Washington Post)

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 mrumsey@sunlightfoundation.com by 7 am on the Monday prior to the event. 


How the Lobbying Top Tier explains an influence paradox

Measuring political influence is a hard problem. And depending on how you set about measuring it, you can come to very different conclusions. As a result, two of the most important political science studies in recent years have come to two different conclusions about political influence.

In one major study, Lobbying and Policy Change, Frank Baumgartner and colleagues looked at 98 issues over four years and yielded a surprising conclusion: lobbying resources don’t appear to matter, at least not in any predictable and consistent manner. In a typical lobbying fight, there is no consistent relationship between lobbying spending and political success.

Yet, in another major study, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page recorded the positions of the 30 top interest groups (by reputation) and the top 10 industries (by lobbying) on over 2,000 policy questions raised in public opinion polls. They find that the positions of these top groups and industries are substantially more influential than public opinion in predicting policy outcomes.

So who’s right? Or are these two findings, seemingly at odds, actually consistent with each other?

In a new paper prepared for the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, we think we can reconcile these two findings, and we think we have some new data to support it.

Here’s our basic theory: Washington is a really crowded place. Every year, more than 10,000 different organizations pay somebody to lobby on their behalf. But if you’ve ever tried to push your way through a wall of people in a crowd, you’ll know it’s hard to get anywhere when countless others are blocking the way. It is the same way with Washington lobbying. In a political environment where demands and requests and entreaties are everywhere, it’s really hard to stand out. This means it’s really hard to get anything done.

Therefore, if you want to be an effective lobbying force, you need some real muscle. You need a kind of everywhere, all-the-time approach to lobbying. And this means hiring dozens of lobbyists who can create a constant presence. This constant presence means the ability to invest in multiple legislative strategies at once, to build relationships and coalitions everywhere and anywhere, and to create a strong enough presence to discourage any political opponents from taking you on.

It’s also a strategy that is limited to a relatively small number of organizations, a group we call the “Top Tier.” And the Top Tier is an exclusive club that is only getting more exclusive.

A few key graphs from our paper tell the basic story. But first, a quick paragraph on our measures. We’ve defined “Top Tier” to mean Top 100 groups. Since that grouping is consistently between 90 and 95 percent business organizations (companies and associations), we broke out separate categories for business and non-business organizations to see is the trends we explore generalize to all types of organizations (they do). We also used three different measures of lobbying activity: expenditures, number of lobbyists hired, and lobbying “presence.” This third measure sums up the total number of in-house lobbyists and then adds the total number of contract lobbying firms. The reason for multiple measures was to make sure that are results are robust.

What’s impressive is just how much of the total lobbying activity across all organizations comes from these Top Tier groups. Figure 1 describes this trend.

Among businesses, the share of total lobbying expenditures accounted for by the top 100 organizations is between 37% (2011) and 48% (1998); and the share of total personnel representing the top 100 organizations is between 35% (2008, 2009) and 47% (2000). For non-business organizations, the spending concentrated in the top tier organizations ranges between 31% (2008-2009) and 46% (1998), and the personnel concentration ranges between 48% (2008-2009) and 74% (1998). Though the concentration does decline somewhat over the 15-year period, one has to keep in mind that the overall lobbying expenditures more than double between 1998 and 2009. So the denominator is increasing significantly. That the concentration of activity in a small number of organizations relatively remains stable during this period of generally increasing expenditures is important


Figure 1

Figure 2 shows the year-to-year persistence in the Top Tier based on all three of our measures, and across both types of organizations. To measure year-to-year persistence, we asked a simple question: of the groups that were in the Top Tier in the previous year, what percentage of those groups are in the Top Tier in the current year?

Increasingly, the same organizations that are in the top tier one year are in the top tier the next year. Among business organizations, the year-to-year persistence of the top tier as measured by spending has increased from 76% (1998-1999) to 91% (2011-2012). As measured by number of lobbyists it has increased from 69% to 88%, and as measured by “presence” it has increased from 63% to 89%. The community is becoming even more stable each year.

Among non-business organizations, the year-to-year persistence of the top tier as measured by spending has increased from 69% to 88%. As measured by number of lobbyists, it has increased from 65% to 75%. As measured by presence, however, it has remained roughly stable, increasing from a low of 73% (1998-1999) to a high of 81% (2005-2006) before declining again slightly.

In both groups there is some ebb and flow in the persistence measures. A new Congress brings new issues, and higher rates of turnover. The smoothed lines draw attention to the general trends towards more stability.


Figure 2

Finally, Figure 3 looks at the changing threshold in terms of lobbying expenditures. Holding constant in 2012 dollars, the minimum lobbying expenditure for a top 100 business organization more than doubled from 1998 to 2009, from $2.36 million to $4.93 million. However, since 2009, the threshold to be in the top 100 has plateaued, with a slight decline. Similarly, the threshold for a non-business organization in the top tier roughly doubled from 1998 to 2009, going from $480,000 to $940,000, with a similar plateau or slight decline. Throughout this period, the threshold for being in the business top tier has consistently been at least five times the threshold for being in the non-business top tier.



Figure 3

All this helps to reconcile the conflicting findings described above. Gilens and Page are essentially looking at Top Tier organizations. And generally these organizations do get their way. Baumgartner and colleagues and looking at a larger population of organizations – some are in the Top Tier, but many are not. So it’s not surprising that in analyzing the relationship between resources and outcomes in a larger population, there is no consistent relationship.

The importance of the top tier helps reconcile the findings of the interest group influence literature: the positions taken by the entrenched top tier of interest groups influence whether policies are adopted (Gilens), but the aggregate resources spent by all groups on each side cancel each other out and thus do not change results (Baumgartner et al.). That a select few interests tend to have their preferences translate into policies (Gilens) is not inconsistent with the fact that money doesn’t buy influence (Baumgartner et al.). More groups spending more money in the aggregate does not mean that the few groups at the top get marginalized. Previous status quo success (and a bit of offensive success) creates a policy feedback mechanism that changes interest group behavior: it provides incentives to take all of the actions necessary to stay at the top (such as spending more money and hiring more lobbyists) to maintain the status quo. Baumgartner et al., after all, explain their (largely) null results by arguing that they reflect status quo bias: after having won a change in policy in the past, interests exploit the institutionalized status quo bias to fend off changes.

To read our paper, click here.