Talk of reforming the District’s campaign finance laws was rekindled this week thanks to a D.C. Council hearing on a number of reform proposals. A lot of changes are on the table — restrictions on donations from city contractors, cracking down on “bundling” and a flat ban on corporate contributions to local candidates.
But there are some reforms that don’t require the law to change. In fact, some don’t require the District government to do anything at all.
A group of activists associated with Occupy D.C. has taken matters into its own hands to greatly improve on the transparency tools offered by the city’s Office of Campaign Finance. Their new website takes data that are publicly available but not easily used or interpreted by an average citizen and mashes them up into an easy-to-understand map-based interface.
It’s intended particularly for getting a handle on the corporate “bundling” phenomenon, where a group of companies with related ownership donate to the same campaign, thus evading the contribution limit that a single corporation or individual is subject to.
A particular innovation is that the site cross-references donating businesses with a city database of corporate registrations, allowing an easy look at the “registered agents” for each business. Matching agents are a very good clue, though not foolproof, that companies have related ownership.
The site is the result of months of work from Chris Herwig, Travis McArthur, Mike Morris, Zack Pesavento and a few others who met via Occupy D.C.’s data committee. (The process of accessing the corporation data, they said, was particularly onerous.) They are admirers of but not participants in the D.C. Committee to Restore Public Trust, the current campaign to ban corporate contributions to D.C. candidates.
Said Pesavento: “Public servants ought to be beholden to the taxpayers who pay their salaries. Instead, the political establishment is busy dancing for corporate puppet-masters who are using shady tactics to stuff their campaign war chests. We already know that this city’s politics are rotten. But if we can figure out how to illustrate the corruption in a clear and accessible way, we have a better shot at translating that knowledge into power. In this case, the information was available, but in an unaccessible format that required months of work to process.”
Occupy D.C. might be gone from McPherson Square, but the data committee is still at work a block away: They meet Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. at the Starbucks at 16th and K streets NW.