WASHINGTON, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA — In 1983, Senators Frank Church (D-Idaho) and Hugh Scott (R-Pa.) founded the Center for Responsive Politics in order to “track money in politics and its effect on elections and public policy.” This government watchdog eventually gave birth to OpenSecrets.org, a searchable database of campaign contributions and a center for investigative journalism about money in politics.
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The name comes from one of the organization’s original publications. Throughout the 1980s, the Center for Responsive Politics publicized its work through reports. Three or four times a year it issued Open Secrets, a report about 1,300 pages long, roughly the size and shape of the Manhattan telephone book. Open Secrets listed every member of Congress and the contributions those members received from organizations and individuals.
The report was an important resource—but it wasn’t considered journalism. Rather, it was background information that journalists could use when writing stories about corruption in politics. Relatively few journalists used it, though, perhaps because the report was a little inconvenient to access. “You had to go to the library or pay $150 to read,” says Dave Levinthal, communications director and editor of OpenSecrets.org.
The organization evolved over time, ultimately becoming much more journalistic in nature. The Center for Responsive Politics launched Opensecrets.org after the 1996 presidential elections. At first the website just consisted of the database of congressmen and their funding. The website later expanded to include a “revolving door” database, looking into politicians who became lobbyists (and vice versa), and another database about the personal fortunes of elected officials. The Center also focuses on congressional earmarks and things like budgeting and direct corporate influence, as well as the personal finances of the president, members of Congress, and other federal officials.
The Center later created OpenSecrets Blog, which publishes articles based on campaign finance data. (The blog published about 600 articles last year.) The Open Secrets blog published several stories on corporate money in health care reform in a series called “Diagnosis Reform.” Another project examined the lobbying of oil, gas, and alternative fuels companies in a series called “Fueling Washington.” In May 2011, the organization looked into how some local governments were using taxpayer money to lobby the federal government.
Make no mistake. This place is not the new Washington Post, or even the new ProPublica. Open Secrets doesn’t usually break stories, and it really only tells one kind of story—the one about money in politics. It’s still mostly a good-government nonprofit that practices journalism on the side. (Levinthal, formerly of the Dallas Morning News and the North Andover, Mass. Eagle-Tribune, is one of the organization’s few staffers with a background in journalism. There are more than six research people but only four journalists on staff, two of whom are part-time interns.)
The site’s strength still lies in information gathering and processing. “You can’t write anything without good data,” Levinthal explains. The Center puts a lot of effort into ensuring that its information is valid, updated, and easy to read and understand. Most Americans know vaguely that corporations affect politics, and that everything has a price. Thanks to Open Secrets, Americans can find out what that price is. If one ever needed to know, for instance, that the third largest contributor to the Senate campaign of Bernie Sanders was Baron & Budd, P.C., one of the largest plaintiffs’ law firms in the country, Open Secrets can tell you. It can get right down to individual events, too. On April 14th, for instance, AT&T hosted a $1,000 a plate fundraiser for the campaign of Mary Bono Mack. Mack sits on the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.
“People kind of know that corporations have influence and they know that there’s lobbying,” Levinthal explains. But “this makes it clear how it directly works.”
The publication and its parent organization are primarily funded by grants. It has advertisements on its site; they’re unobtrusive and never political. The advertisements generate less than one percent of the Center for Responsive Politics’s total budget, according to Levinthal.
Although it boasts more than $2.6 million in grant funding, to be doled out over the next several years, Levinthal still says that “we’re on a shoestring budget.” The annual operating budget for 2009 was $1.86 million. (True to the spirit of the organization, the Center for Responsive Politics has its own financial statements right on the website, with amounts.)
But that doesn’t mean they’ll take all charitable contributions. The organization has gotten donations from corporations and politicians—many of them progressive, good government types—but “we’ve politely returned them,” said Levinthal, apparently preferring that the organization maintain its independence.
Another source of funding is partnerships with news organizations, which pay Open Secrets for information and analysis. Sometimes staff from both institutions write articles. Open Secrets is currently working on a planned series with the Los Angeles Times called “Tracking the Payback.”
It’s a far different organization from the one Church and Scott created back in 1983, but the mission is more or less the same: to help keep people informed about money and politics and make good decisions.
City: Washington, D.C.
Revenue Sources, other: Provides research services for other news outlets (both for free and for fees)
Principal Staff: Sheila Krumholz, Center for Responsive Politics executive director; Dave Levinthal, OpenSecrets.org editor; Michael Beckel, lead reporter.
Affiliations: Parent organization, Center for Responsive Politics; Other foundation support, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Joyce Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, Sunlight Foundation, Jingo Foundation, Zankel Foundation.
CMS: MovableType - Pro / Enterprise
CJR on OpenSecrets.org:
02/01/11: Too moderate, too foreign, too Obama: next! - Huntsman, Jr. dismissed before he gets out of the gate? - Joel Meares
02/15/08: Obama’s Lobbyist Line - A “more complicated truth” on campaign contributions - Trudy Lieberman