|The influence of campaign donations and lobbying money on environmental policy can be tracked, at least partly, through publicly disclosed data. Above, the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 7, 2023. Photo: White House/Adam Schultz via Flickr Creative Commons.|
Issue Backgrounder: Follow the Money With Campaign and Lobbying Data
By Joseph A. Davis
Environmental journalists, now more than ever, need to follow the money to tell the story of how campaign donations and lobbying money can influence environmental health protections.
One recent example of such reporting came from E&E News, which looked into how much money went to the new leadership of the House of Representatives from the oil and gas industry.
This Backgrounder will offer guidance on how to report these kinds of stories, with an emphasis on tracking environment-related contributions.
First, we need to follow the publicly disclosed money (a little later we’ll look at how you can follow, with more difficulty, the so-called dark money).
Disclosure works, or does it?
Fortunately the law — at least some of it — is on the side of disclosure. This is where your reporting can start.
If you do not know about the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, or FECA, it’s a good time to learn. Then you need to learn about how and why the legislation doesn’t always work, and the many other laws that have tried and failed to regulate campaign finance. After that, you may well need to learn about the laws governing campaign finance disclosure for your state.
Overseeing enforcement of campaign laws
is the Federal Election Commission. At least
it’s supposed to be overseeing enforcement.
Overseeing enforcement of the FECA and other campaign laws is the Federal Election Commission, or FEC. At least it’s supposed to be overseeing enforcement. But it doesn’t quite.
Why? The FEC is supposed to be a six-member commission — no more than three of whom can belong to the same political party. Currently, all FEC commissioner seats are filled. This has not always been the case.
But the rules require all the FEC’s major decisions to be made with four votes. In the best of times, that often leads to a 3-3 split. And that amounts to political paralysis.
The basic FEC data
If you have ever donated to a federal political campaign, you probably know that you have to disclose the contribution. The FEC currently puts a $2,900 limit on the amount an individual can donate to a political campaign per election.
If you contribute more than $100, you have to give basic info about who you are (for example, the name of your employer). The candidate reports this and it goes into the FEC database.
But there’s a lot more to it. There are limits on how much an individual can give to a PAC (political action committee) or to a party committee. We won’t go into it, but here’s more.
Candidates and their committees have to report what donations they receive and spend on a quarterly basis. This makes data — and tells you a lot about how they are doing. The data is kept and distributed by the FEC. You can search and download most of it from here.
What is OpenSecrets?
Because the FEC doesn’t always present its data in the most useful form, we also have OpenSecrets, a presentation of the FEC data in a much friendlier form. OpenSecrets was formerly known as the Center for Responsive Politics. It is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The query engines at OpenSecrets allow you to ask the important questions about political influence.
Once upon a time, there was a similar organization called the National Institute on Money in Politics (the website was FollowTheMoney.org) which collected analogous data at the state level for all 50 states. It merged with the Center for Responsive Politics in 2021. The good news is that OpenSecrets now includes both state and federal data.
Another way money gets into politics is lobbying. The good news (if there is any) is that much lobbying activity must be disclosed under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, or LDA. Find out more about the LDA by reviewing the act and reading House guidance.
One important thing to know about lobbying
data is that, at least nominally, it is publicly
available. The bad news is that it is not
always complete or fully disclosed.
One important thing to know about lobbying data is that it is mostly collected and held by the clerks of the two chambers of Congress. At least nominally, the lobbying data is publicly available. OpenSecrets collects and discloses it through its database system.
The bad news is that lobbying data is not always complete or fully disclosed. One reason for this is that lobbying can be hard to define. Another is that lobbyists don’t always disclose all that they are doing. It’s worth finding out all you can. But on a good day, it can tell you a lot about how industry money affects the politics of energy and the environment.
Knowing your industry
Certain industries have more environmental impact than others, and those industries are usually the ones most affected by environmental law and politics. This is where environmental journalists will find good money-in-politics stories.
OpenSecrets does fairly well at following these connections. But you can see more if you know where to look. OpenSecrets tracks money by industry. It’s good to know what the standard categories are that it uses. It’s also good to know more.
Among the categories in standard use at OpenSecrets are energy/natural resources, construction, agribusiness, transportation, insurance, law, chemicals, and oil and gas. Start looking for categories here.
Another way to approach sectors is by the actual name of the company or lobby group. For example, you can look for the American Petroleum Institute, the American Chemistry Council or the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Yet another way in is to look at specific PACs. For example, here are some of the top chemical industry PACs. Not only should you be looking for the American Chemistry Council, but also for its AmeriChem PAC.
Lobbying is just the start
Lobbyists are supposed to be “registered.” Under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (and its amendments), people who lobby Congress are supposed to file disclosures of their activity. The basic info is maintained by the clerk of the House and the secretary of the Senate.
You can use the less user-friendly online systems from these two offices — or the presentation of the same information via OpenSecrets. If you want to know who is trying to get that tax break reauthorized for the coal industry, this is where you go.
Loopholes, sloppiness, delay and
noncompliance make it hard to figure
out (with or without data) who is lobbying
whom about what. And who is paying them.
The problem is that loopholes, sloppiness, delay and noncompliance make it hard to figure out (with or without data) who is lobbying whom about what. And who is paying them.
For instance, you should know what “bundling” is. That’s when some agent (often a lobbyist or lobby firm) collects a substantial number of campaign donations to a specific member, or PAC, and presents them all to the recipient as a package.
Often this is done by holding a party — well, maybe just a boring reception fundraiser — where individual donors (be they companies or individuals like executives) attend and write a check. The reception might well be held by a lobbying group or firm. The genius of this method is that it makes the host group an indispensable key to accessing the money.
It also turns many smaller contributions into one big contribution. This makes it much harder to track. One key is looking for contributions that bear the same (or nearly the same) date.
You probably won’t be invited, but if you hang out with lobbyists (who, by the way, can be great sources) you may find out about it or even be able to crash the reception.
Shedding some light on dark money
The whole idea of dark money is to keep reporters and the public from knowing about it. That’s the problem.
A fairly straightforward description of dark money basics is available from OpenSecrets itself.
But open-gov fanatics would go on to add that it is about hiding power relationships and accountability. For example, over several decades much of the funding for disseminating climate denial has been hidden from view.
Let’s back up: One basic premise of U.S. campaign finance law such as the FECA is to restrict corporate donations to candidates — and to offset the corrupting influence of money by publicly disclosing as much as possible. That’s the theory.
The history and legal history of dark money are long and complex. The political weakness of the FEC and the political leanings of the U.S. Supreme Court have woven a fabric that subverts political finance disclosure.
One key? Disclosure is not required for spending that is not coordinated with a candidate and their campaigns. Another is that the origins of money can be obscured by using pass-through organizations. It’s way complicated.
You can get a good look at the dark money landscape just by reading Jane Mayer’s book, “Dark Money.” You can get a better look at the connection between dark money and climate denial in these reports from Gizmodo and Inside Climate News.
But don’t underestimate dark money. We don’t know how much there is because it’s … dark. OpenSecrets itself has counted over $1 billion of dark money going into the 2020 federal election cycle.
And don’t assume too much. OpenSecrets says that more of that money went to Democrats.
[Editor’s Note: For more on money’s influence in politics, see our Reporter’s Toolbox, “Climate Money Meets the Super PACs.” Plus, check out our recent Climate Solutions special report for a TipSheet and Toolbox on reporting on corporations.]
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 8. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.