Something really good has come out of Berkeley that conservatives and liberals can applaud. It’s MapLight.org, an Internet-based nonprofit organization that makes it possible for interested folks to find out more about votes and money in Congress than ever before. Quite simply, what MapLight.org has done is create a mash-up that enables simultaneous searches of databases of contributions to senators and congressmen and databases of their voting records. This makes it possible for citizens to see the relationship in time, if any, between the contributions received by their senators and representatives from special interests and how they voted on issues of concern to those special interests. MapLight.org is thus, in the words of Wired.com, one of the many emerging Internet-based tools that “turn citizens into Washington watchdogs.”
For example, in the previous Republican-led Congress, MapLight.org reveals that supporters of a proposal to increase the estate tax exemption gave an average of $25,886 to each legislator who voted in favor, while opponents gave legislators opposing the measure an average of $17,546. Supporters mainly came from the timber industry, while opponents were drawn primarily from labor unions and nonprofit advocacy groups. Similarly, in the current Congress, the Senate recently approved an amendment preventing U.S. citizens from purchasing prescription drugs from abroad. Supporters, essentially the pharmaceutical industry, gave legislators voting for the amendment an average of $70,181 but only an average of $25,519 to those who opposed it.
Curiously, there were contributing groups opposed to the proposal. MapLight.org also breaks out the data by specific members of Congress and for more than 100 industry groups.
Shining light in this fashion on the votes and contributions to members of Congress is a giant step forward in making American democracy more transparent. It is also the kind of tool for citizenship that can equip voters with more information than ever before on whose interests are actually being protected by their senators and congressmen. As Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, “sunshine is the best disinfectant.” Whether you are a Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, disinfecting the U.S. Congress is a major publicservice. Readers are encouraged to go to the Maplight.org Web site, become familiar with it, bookmark it and tell friends and neighbors about it. This is a good thing.