Friday, February 28, 2014

Following the wrong money

I'm pretty proud of the little Twitter bot I wrote to auto-tweet large Illinois campaign contributions, but this morning I realized its true insignificance. Campaign finance is simply not where the story about money and politics really is, and all of the sound and fury over its minutiae signify nothing. In 2012, estimates vary but about $2.6 billion was spent on the Presidential race; around $6 billion was spent on all federal races (including House and Senate elections).

In 2014, the White House budget projects spending $3.78 trillion dollars. In other words, the most expensive set of elections in American history - by far - accounts for about 0.16% of the federal budget for 2014. The government will spend the equivalent of one of the most expensive Presidential races America has ever seen in 4.5 hours. As a percentage of the federal budget, the 2012 Presidential election cost less than the percentage of health care spending we allot to circumcision.

The question isn't, "Why is there so much money in American politics?" but rather, "Why is there so little?" And more importantly, "Where is the real money going, and where's the real quid-pro-quo?"

Those are tough questions to answer, so I won't. A lot of people are already working on them, and entire careers can be devoted to understanding where the federal dollar is spent. What's interesting to me is why campaign finance data gets so much more attention in journalismland.

I started wondering about this this morning at an overflowing NICAR panel on mining FEC data - one of about 4 explicitly devoted to campaign finance, with another half-dozen panels using campaign finance as one topic among others under discussion. Legions of nonprofits and open-source projects and websites are devoted to analyzing and dissecting campaign finance -, the Sunlight Foundation's Influence Explorer,, and pretty much every major and minor newspaper has some sort of campaign finance project.

There's nothing wrong with all this activity, to an extent - great, valuable, important stories remain to be found in campaign finance data, at both the state and federal level. But I think the real reasons for this surfeit of attention paid to such a tiny chunk of money are structural, and troubling.

For one thing, it's just easier to analyze and write stories about this data. Disclosure laws are admirably firm(ish), so there's a ready source of easily-understood data about who's giving money to campaigns and who's getting money from them. Dates, contribution amounts, names, addresses, occupations - it's all there, it's all obvious and straightforward, and your only headaches are in parsing file formats and matching up misspelled names.

It's also much easier to make an assertion on the basis of this evidence alone. Did someone give $20,000 to a politician who then appointed them to an office? That's all you need to know in order to raise an eyebrow, and it's all public record, so it's totally defensible. Was a contract awarded to someone's brother, when another firm was better-equipped to do the job? That's vastly harder to prove, and a lot of that evidence isn't already public, requiring even more effort.

Ultimately, my fear is that campaign finance has had a spotlight trained on it for so long that the real malfeasance has migrated. If you're a shady character looking to exert undue influence on a system, or looking to profit from that system, are you going to commit your shady acts in the one place you know reporters are constantly looking for stories? The one place you know everything will be made public, scrutinized by bots and concerned citizens and hungry journalists looking to find you? Or are you going to start sleazing around the government contracts that are so much larger, and so much more opaque, and already so sleazy to begin with?

In short, if you're trying to exert undue influence or scrape some cash off the top of a fat government contract, are you going to go where the sunlight is, or where the money is?

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