How to Muckrake in Cyberspace Part II: Congress

| Mon Mar. 24, 1997 4:00 AM EST

Sniffing out sleazy deals in Congress still means plowing through the dusty bureaus and overstuffed file cabinets of our nation's capital, but in recent years the Web has brought some powerful resources right into your living room. Here's a primer for muckraking on Capitol Hill while kicking back in your bathrobe and bunny slippers:

SHOW ME THE MONEY:
Nothing says "I love you, Senator" like cold hard cash.

We wish we'd done it first: FECInfo is the best single site on the Web for investigating members of Congress. Every dollar of their campaign cash appears in the Federal Election Commission data on this citizen's site -- searchable by candidate, contributor, contributor's employer, and PAC or party committee. FECInfo also tells you who's got the most cash on hand, plus copious information on campaign finance disclosure laws, downloadable soft money databases, and more. Site creator Tony Raymond, a former FEC employee, also takes a few deserved pot-shots at his ex-employer.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Meanwhile, at the FEC's own site, the same data is embarrassingly non-searchable -- as if they don't want you to see where the money comes from. This site is useful for brushing up on election laws or downloading raw data, but otherwise it's hard to imagine why you'd go here rather than to Raymond's FECInfo -- and the FEC seems to acknowledge this with a touchy disclaimer at the bottom of their homepage.

The watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics recently cut a deal to merge most of FECInfo into their site, making CRP a good place to start your snooping. Their "Open Secrets" report is a classic analysis of campaign cash in the '93-'94 cycle, while the searchable "Cashing In" shows how members' votes in the 104th Congress miraculously match the interests of their funders. Also, CRP's "politician profiles" break down each pol's leading PAC donors, sorted by issue.

To meet the millionaires who pull your legislator's puppet strings, see the MoJo Wire's own MoJo 400, our probe of the 400 fattest cats in campaign funding, and the politicians they buy -- fully searchable, of course. Our 1995 "Taking Stock in Congress" lets you search shady stock deals by lawmakers -- watch for updates soon. "The Best Congress Money Can Buy" shows you how much PAC money each candidate took from '91 to '94, and from what industries.

If you can pay the fees, LEXIS-NEXIS offers Congressional financial disclosure forms online. These public filings tell you what stocks, real estate, and other assets your member owns, what their liabilities and mortgages are worth, and what positions they hold in companies or organizations. LEXIS is still accessed with a clunky telnet setup, but will soon be browsable on the Web.

HEAD FOR THE HILL:
Now that you know who pays your Congress member's bills, find out what bills your Congress member is pushing.

Named for that swinger Jefferson, THOMAS, a Library of Congress site, does for legislation what FECInfo does for campaign cash. Find out who pimped for the bad bills -- and who killed the good ones. Dig the full-text searchable bills, with their complete legislative history, sponsors and co-sponsors, committee and floor actions, all cross-referenced to the complete Congressional Record, also full-text searchable. Sometimes you'll even catch your member shamelessly plugging their corporate donors. Plus committee reports, the legislative process, and more.

The House and Senate have their own sites where members post their own -- often silly -- pages. The sites also offer current committee rosters, which give a glimpse about why those fat cats are wooing Senator Dim-Bulb: His committee has jurisdiction over their industry's trade regulations, environmental requirements, tax deductions, etc.

PoliticsNow has gone offline, but the National Journal's Almanac of American Politics '96 is still accessible online, a trusty compendium of information on Congress members, from mailing addresses to interest-group voting ratings.

Congressional Quarterly's VoteWatch is a searchable database of your representatives and all their votes in the last 18 months: Yea, Nay, or Gone Golfing. CQ's On The Job offers detailed personal and political profiles of each member, with their recent floor speeches, committee roll call votes, and bills introduced in this session.

Voter Information Services compiles dozens of interest-group ratings showing how your member voted on legislation supported by groups ranging from the ACLU to the NRA, from the Christian Coalition to the National Abortion Rights Action League.

The House Majority Whip's page provides a running digest of today's action on the House floor, with a C-SPAN video frame grab every 20 seconds so you can see who's spouting off, and bills hyperlinked to the THOMAS database so you can see exactly what they're spouting about.

FedNet offers detailed schedules of upcoming House and Senate activity, with archived RealAudio recordings of debates, committee hearings and more.

For more resources on Congress, the best meta-page we've found is the U.S. Legislative Branch page at the Library of Congress.

RAISE HELL:
Shoot your mouth off -- it's your right as an American.

When you've blundered onto unsavory dealings that really chap your hide, you can flame your Senator or Representative -- but remember, about half of them still don't have e-mail.

To reach these fogies you'll need the primeval telephone call and snail mail. Speak your piece with these two toll-free numbers to the Capitol switchboard, paid for by the Christian Coalition:

1-800-962-3524 or
1-800-972-3524.
Or write a letter and encourage friends to do the same. Sad but true: One sheet of bleached tree pulp impresses these 20th-century hacks more than any newfangled Internet gizmo. For maximum effect, try a quill pen and parchment!

And as always, you can tip off the MoJo Wire to any shenanigans, or muckraking spots on the Web, that you discover.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.