Jonathan Zucker and Joshua Tauberer have developed a website where political donors can give money to the campaigns of sitting lawmakers or their future reelection challengers based solely on how those lawmakers vote on legislation.
Just don’t confuse it with “bribery,” they say.
“On a first read, what we’re talking about kind of looks problematic,” Zucker admits.
Indeed, federal law bars public officials from accepting money or goods in connection with a specific action that they took or have been asked to take. But that’s not how the pair’s start-up website, called If.Then.Fund, actually works, the co-founders said.
The aim is to give small donors greater influence over whether lawmakers are reelected, based on actual votes they cast rather than empty promises made on the campaign trail.
Zucker and Tauberer – both long-time open government activists – believe that pooling money helps small donors match the influence of well-heeled companies, special interests and individuals.
“How can we give small-dollar donors concrete ways of deciding who they want to keep in Congress and who they want to get rid of?” Zucker asked.
Here’s how the website works: First, users select their preferred outcome for a specific bill. They then pledge a sum of money that will ultimately be divided among lawmakers or their challengers. Once lawmakers’ votes have been cast, the website charges the users’ credit card and distributes the money.
“One of the reasons why we don’t do anything about legislation until the vote happens, and that’s when we charge credit cards, is because we want to be incredibly far away from any question of bribery,” Zucker said.
All lawmakers who voted with the user receive a campaign donation, and those who swung the other way see that money go to the coffers of their opponent. That, in essence, is where the company derives its name.
“If a member of Congress votes the way you want, then fund their reelection campaign. And if they don’t vote the way you want, then fund their next general election opponent,” Tauberer said.
For example, say a user wants the Senate to pass the USA Freedom Act and pledges a campaign donation of $100. After the vote takes place, each senator who voted in favor of the bill would receive $1. Meanwhile, the challenger of each senator who voted against would receive $1.
In practice, a House bill to ban most abortions after 20 weeks attracted $282 on If.Then.Fund prior to the body’s May 13 vote. Ultimately, $21.10 was pledged by donors who wanted lawmakers to vote yes, and $261 was pledged by those who wanted lawmakers to vote no. That money was then split among every member of the House and their future opponents.
That’s a miniscule amount of money, of course, but Zucker and Tauberer say they haven’t started marketing the site. So far, for instance, people have pledged more than $3,000 on the site money around a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
To avoid accusations of bribery, If.Then.Fund donates pledges directly to campaigns registered with the Federal Election Commission. That prevents any direct communication with lawmakers. If.Then.Fund also doesn’t reveal the size of individual pledges until after the vote takes place. Even then, the exact vote that triggered a contribution is not disclosed to avoid conflict with House ethics rules.
“If you want to argue that we’re inducing members of Congress to show up and vote on bills, we’ll accept that charge,” Zucker said. “But we’re not inducing behavior in either direction.”
Michael E. Toner, a partner at Wiley Rein and former FEC chairman, said withholding the donations until a vote takes place is “an important safeguard because it precludes finding that there is a link or nexus between potential campaign contributions and how members of Congress vote on particular bills.”
Toner also called If.Then.Fund “innovative” and said the FEC has opened the door in recent years to online fundraising platforms that tie donations to lawmakers’ decisions. It’s akin to an association calling on its members to support or oppose a politician on the day after a controversial vote, Toner said.
“That’s often a very effective fundraising device. The only difference here is that folks are pledging contributions prior to the vote,” Toner said.
If.Then.Fund isn’t the kind of start-up concocted in a political science major’s dorm room.
A Georgetown-educated campaign finance lawyer, Zucker served as a national director of operations for the Democratic National Committee before becoming one of the first employees to join ActBlue, an online fundraising engine for left-leaning candidates. He is now the CEO at Democracy Engine, another online donation platform.
Tauberer, for his part, is a software developer and open government enthusiast. In 2004, he built and launched GovTrack.us, a website that allows the public to monitor bills and officials’ voting records. More recently, he helped create Popvox, a start-up that facilitates communication between constituents and Congress.
“The top line goal is shifting the balance of power,” Tauberer said. “What we want to do is show small-dollar donors are participating, they’re invested and care, and we want Congress as a whole to respond to that.”
Welcome to Tech Thursdays, our weekly lowdown on the latest apps, gadgets and websites being launched for and used by Washington’s power players. Contact Steven Overly at Steven.Overly@washpost.com to tell me about your digital diet.