The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How you (and a few thousand of your friends) can become the biggest donors in American politics

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At some point soon, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) will likely be charged with corruption by the federal government. The charges almost certainly stem from his interactions with a wealthy donor, Salomon Melgen. At some point, Menendez's exercise of his power and Melgen's donations overlapped in a way that allegedly broke the law.

When the news broke, we looked at the blurry line between a donation that's allowed and one that isn't. The public perception (which is flawed) is that campaign donations act a a sort of authorized bribery. If politicians weren't reliant on fundraising, if they didn't have to spend so much time begging for contributions, what would the process look like? What would a reform of the donation system look like?

Which brings us to

Here's how it works. Let's say that Congress is considering a bill to, I don't know, fund the Department of Homeland Security. allows users to commit money to a particular outcome of that vote. Maybe you want the vote to fail, because you want Republicans to hold steady on opposition to the president's immigration reform actions. (Hopefully you know the details of the bill we're talking about here.) You go to, pledge $50 to oppose the bill, and decide how you want that money divided up after the vote occurs. You can say, for example, that you want the money you've pledged to support the reelection of people who vote the way you want. Or, perhaps, you want it to support challengers to those who don't. Make your pick, sit back, and wait.

"For most of a decade, I've been puzzling out how you can empower small-dollar donors to engage in similar behaviors to what we see from special interest/concentrated wealth kind of givers," said Jonathan Zucker of fundraising site Democracy Engine when he spoke with me by phone earlier this month. He discovered that Josh Tauberer, who runs GovTrack, a site that provides data on congressional data, was trying to figure out the same sort of thing. "One of the things I've been thinking about over this time was using votes on legislation as triggers for giving," Zucker explained. Which led to, a project that came together over the last few months.

The actual donations on the DHS issue totaled just over $41, for everyone -- a function of the site's recent launch more than anything. But even in that small figure, there's some interesting data. Four out of every five dollars went in support of the bill. And the money was split down the middle between whether it would go to support people who voted the way the donor wanted or to support whoever ends up challenging them in 2016. That's in the aggregate: Meaning that some members of Congress will get money for their vote, and some will see money go to their opponents for the same reason.

Clearly, splitting up $20 among 200-plus campaigns seeking to oust members of the House who voted the wrong way is not going to have a huge effect, especially when the incumbents are also receiving money for the same vote. The program will need to scale up significantly to be effective. But for Tauberer and Zucker, there is a level of scale below wiping out all big donors that will show they've been effective.

"We can have a good level of success merely by showing that small-dollar donors really are participating," Tauberer said. "There are levels of funding that have an influence below being the biggest game in town or providing a third of campaign finance," Zucker added. "If you just had 10,000 people giving $10 every time Congress votes on something? That turns into very real amounts of money in the aggregate. It's enough to replace two or three moderate bundlers," he said, referring to (usually wealthy) donors who collect contributions from other people. "The amount of money that is required to get on the radar screen of the fundraisers and the chief of staff and the candidate is in the tens of thousands. That kind of money is quite achievable."

What's more, the ability to earmark contributions for possible challengers could itself reshape a political race. "Knowing that that pool of money is waiting for you means that more qualified candidates might run," Zucker said. unsurprisingly has a very detailed page describing how and why setting aside money for particular vote outcomes doesn't violate federal bribery laws. For one thing, elected officials never know how the money for a vote is distributed in advance, meaning that there's no way for them to tailor a vote to maximize income. That also makes a necessarily "blunt instrument," in Zucker's formulation.

The goal, though, is the big picture: Reshaping, at least in part, how candidates get the money for their campaigns. Decreasing reliance on big donors. Promoting investment in policy decisions over rhetoric or party.

"Our top-line goal is to try to shift the balance of power away from concentrated wealth to the rest of us," Tauberer said. "Even if on any given issue both sides are weighing in equally, we still raise money from small-dollar donors, from people who might not otherwise be participating."

It's ambitious. But it seems safe to say that, in a period in which members of Congress spend inordinate amounts of time hustling for money, even they should find this appealing. As should someone like Robert Menendez.