Watchdog groups are increasingly researching and then reporting the often- hidden links between special-interest groups, their contributions to legislators' campaign war chests, and legislative outcomes.
All citizens, and especially the media, should encourage such research. Knowing which lawmakers received campaign donations from well-monied groups - whether the money came from unions, corporations, or "public interest" lobbies - and how they voted on specific bills can help voters make better-informed choices come election day.
The Center for Responsive Politics in Washington has taken the lead in this trend, joined by other groups, such as Common Cause and Public Citizen. They comb data collected by the Federal Election Commission and other sources. Some provide searchable databases on their websites to help inquirers find donor/politician relationships.
An environmental group, Friends of the Earth, has just started a bi-weekly publication looking at pending bills in Congress that would support the energy industry. It links campaign dollars to lawmakers, and also describes who would benefit from the legislation.
Proving links isn't always easy. In fact, it's time-consuming and costly. And a lot of the research is done by liberal groups, whose bias may cast a shadow over their data. More-neutral organizations, including the media, could provide a service by following the money trail through the lawmaking process, either in Washington, state capitols, or local government.
The Associated Press, for instance, recently looked at six measures pending in the US House of Representatives and compared votes with the campaign money legislators received from interest groups supporting or opposing bills ranging from gun control to medical malpractice. Not surprisingly, the AP found that the largest recipients of interest-group money voted the way their donors wanted in a majority of instances. This isn't necessarily sinister; groups naturally give to candidates they know represent their views. That's part of the democratic process.
Recent changes in campaign- finance laws were designed to rein in the cascade of unregulated political contributions. But more can be done to shed light on how special-interest money influences the public's business. Greater transparency in government will help citizens hold their elected officials accountable.