Following the cash behind the new Congress

A guide to getting a (mostly) complete picture in the era of outside spending

In simpler times, when donors were donors and PACs were PACs, campaign spending was easy to follow. A review of a politician’s campaign donations—recorded by the same agency in the same place—would provide the lowdown on all of his or her biggest backers.

But in the brave new world of campaign finance, this basic question has become more complicated. Citizens United and related Supreme Court decisions have given rise to super PACs and political “social welfare” groups, entities that spend unlimited amounts on elections with varying degrees of disclosure.

Campaign 2012 is now over, obviously. But as a new Congress begins its session and the last bits of campaign finance data from late last year become available, journalists around the country have another opportunity to introduce their audiences to the donors and special interests that helped put their elected representatives in office.

To provide a complete picture of who is bankrolling elections, though, reporters and citizens now must consider a broader landscape. They need to review records of different types, kept in different places. There is currently no single, easy-to-use source where all campaign spending on behalf of a candidate is gathered in one place.

This primer offers a beginners’ guide (and a review for more experienced journalists and advocates) on how to fully examine a politician’s campaign funding. Watchdog organizations that promote transparency and have done essential work in making campaign finance data readily accessible, such as the Center for Responsive Politics and the Sunlight Foundation, could help facilitate this process by providing a resource that puts all of a candidate’s funding in a single place. Until then, the steps detailed below explain how to examine and disclose the campaign money—both traditional donations and outside spending—behind a candidate for federal office:

1) The Traditional Money

Most of the money that goes into federal races still comes from traditional donors: individuals and PACs that contribute directly to politicians, and must disclose their contribution to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). An individual can give up to $2,500; PACs and party committees can give up to $5,000 per campaign. Individual contributors are also required to disclose their employers and professions, information that shows which companies and industries are a candidate’s biggest backers.

The website, run by the Center for Responsive Politics, offers one of the best summaries of a candidates’ traditional donations. When you select a politician, the tabs near the top of the screen also offer breakdowns of these donations by election cycle, biggest donors, top contributing industries and sectors, and more.

To illustrate the process, we’ll examine who is bankrolling Tim Bishop, a Democrat from Long Island who was narrowly re-elected in 2012 after a nasty and expensive race against Republican Randy Altschuler. Records show that Bishop raised $2.7 million in traditional donations in the race, receiving his greatest support from retired people, leadership PACs of fellow Democratic office holders, and lawyers and law firms.

PAC contributions to Bishop over time illustrate a pattern that is common among long-serving Democrats. When Bishop was first elected in 2002, the PACs that provided his greatest support were labor and ideological groups, with negligible support from business PACs. Over time, this balance has shifted, and in the 2012 cycle Bishop received more traditional donations from business PACs than from labor and ideological committees combined. Examining how politicians’ donor bases change over time—such as the proportions of campaign cash coming from local vs. national groups, or issue advocates vs. Wall Street and other business interests—can suggest avenues for further reporting about whether time in Washington is changing their priorities.

2) Independent Expenditures

Most outside spending—and almost all outside spending that can be tracked—is made through so-called independent expenditures. These are political communications that specifically call for the election or defeat of a candidate, and must not be coordinated with any candidate’s campaign. There are no limits on how much an individual or group can spend in this way, and spending by super PACs and some spending by political nonprofits falls into this category. Like traditional donations, independent expenditures must be reported to the FEC.

The key for examining independent expenditures is to search by race rather by candidate, and to note carefully whether an expenditure supports or opposes the candidates it mentions. The data for Bishop’s 2012 House race includes a tab for independent expenditures that includes totals of how much was spent to support or oppose each candidate. Expenditures in favor of Bishop and opposed to Altschuler both represent spending on Bishop’s behalf, and adding up these totals shows that Bishop was supported by $1.4 million in independent spending in addition to the $2.7 million that he raised directly. His biggest outside spending supporters were the House Majority PAC, a national Democratic group; and two unions, the National Education Association and the Communications Workers of America.

For more detailed analysis, the Sunlight Foundation keeps race-by-race records of outside spending that offer two important advantages. The first is that they indicate clearly which candidate each expenditure supports or opposes, and the second is that data can be downloaded with a single click into Microsoft Excel. Once again, it is important to search by race rather than by candidate, since most outside spending funds ads that attack a favored candidate’s opponent without mentioning the candidate being supported. A quick Excel review of outside spending on Bishop’s behalf shows that his case is no exception: about $1.2 million of the $1.4 million that supported him came in the form of attacks against Altschuler.

The Center for Public Integrity offers searchable profiles of leading super PACs, nonprofits and mega-donors, providing helpful context on their activities, agendas and financial backers.

3) Issue Ads and Hidden Spending

Some political spending is almost impossible to track. Issue ads, also known as “electioneering communications,” can mention a candidate’s name but must focus on an issue and refrain from specifically calling for a candidate’s election or defeat. The political nonprofit groups that run issue ads are not required to disclose this spending to the FEC except in a short window before elections, even though many so-called issue ads are clearly intended to influence voters’ decisions. Courts have issued conflicting rulings on whether nonprofits that run issue ads are required to disclose their donors—most recently deciding that the donors could remain secret and prompting a rush of issue ad spending.

The fullest disclosure for issue ads is required by the Federal Communications Commission, which requires broadcast stations to keep a record of political ad buys. However, the FCC’s archive currently covers only the top 50 broadcast markets, consists of scanned disclosure forms rather than readable data, and cannot be searched by candidate or race—making it impractical to use in most cases.

The Sunlight Foundation’s outside spending database includes a limited record of electioneering communications, and its breakdowns of individual races include some issue ad spending. But because these messages are not supposed to advocate for a candidate’s election or defeat, the record does not show whom the spending benefits. Further research is necessary to determine these groups’ agendas, and in many cases these groups do not disclose their donors at all. In Rep. Bishop’s re-election race last year, the Sunlight Foundation finds no issue ads on record.

News reports are also a good source for finding announcements of “issue ad” buys. But reporters and citizens should be aware that under the current system, even a thorough examination of a politician’s funding will miss certain spending that legally remains in the dark.

Follow the author on Twitter @SashaChavkin. For more content like this, follow @USProjectCJR.

Related posts:

Where to turn when tackling money-in-politics stories

The top campaign finance tools for local news sites

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Sasha Chavkin covers political money and influence for CJR's United States Project, our politics and policy desk. He has written for ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and The New York World. Follow him on Twitter @sashachavkin. Tags: , ,