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The big-money usurption of American democracy has taken another step forward. By a vote of 51-44, the Senate last night voted along party lines to uphold a filibuster the 2012 DISCLOSE Act, a bill that would require corporations, unions and Super PAC that run political ads to release the names of their donors who give more than $10,000 to support a campaign. Just ten years after President Bush signed into law the “Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act” (McCain-Feingold), putting limits on independent campaign spending and requiring disclosure in ads, simple disclosure of unlimited campaign spending has become a bitter, highly-politicized issue.

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Liberate OpenGovData Now

February 1, 2012 - by David Moore

It's 2012 - we don't have hover skateboards, and we don't have #opengov. We could have the latter, at least, in the here and now, benefiting every American, if the systemically corrupt U.S. Congress was capable of reforming itself (which it is currently, unfortunately, not). (Right, '80's movie art, w/ connotations of liberation by force and yet a certain datedness... it's past time.) 

I'm writing this on the train from NYC to D.C., en route to the Conference on Legislative Data & Transparency to be held Thursday, Feb. 2nd, 9am - 5pm ET - agenda here, webcast live here, micro-publishing updates here.

This shouldn't be a negotiation - rather, I'm here to call for liberation of public legislative data via bulk access and moving towards an open API for THOMAS. Then proceeding aggressively to API enhancements for Congressional offices to continually engage with constituent communications - for a living, breathing deliberative democracy - aided by open technology.

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The undue influence of corporate money in public policy is at the root of nearly all the major problems facing the U.S. right now, and in the wake of the Citizens United decision it's only going to get worse. That's why it was good to hear President Obama call out the "corrosive influence of money in politics" during his State of the Union speech. Unfortunately, his primary call to action doesn't even address the real issue.

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Boom Years for Congress

December 27, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Between 1984 and 2009, the average net worth of American families has decreased by about .7 percent. But for the folks in Washington that we elect year after year to make laws for us and spend our money, these past few decades haven't been so bad. Over the same time period that average Americans experienced a slight decrease in their net worth, members of Congress, on average, have enjoyed a increase in their worth of about 159 percent.

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Following last month's 60 Minutes expose on insider trading by Congress, the House Financial Service Committee Act is holding a mark-up this morning of the STOCK Act, which seeks to end the practice of members of Congress trading stocks based on nonpublic information. Under current law, insider trading laws are hardly ever enforced for members of Congress, and we've known for some time that members' investments consistently outperform the market by a significant amount. Legislation to stop congressional insider trading has been pending in the House and Senate for 6 years, and only now is the bill starting to move forward.

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Last night, 60 Minutes aired an interview with former lobbyist Jack Abramoff that describes just how deeply and systemically corrupt the lawmaking process in Washington D.C. is. Here's the sad, sad truth about Congress, straight from the horse's mouth.

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Should Congress Be Afraid of Online Piracy?

November 4, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

One of the only things Republicans and Democrats in Congress seem to agree on these days is passing legislation aimed at stopping copyright infringement on the internet. For years, members of Congress from across the political spectrum with financial backing from copyright industries have been pushing for new powers for the government and copyright owners to restrict channels for sharing content online. Just last week a bipartisan bill was introduced in the House, the Stop Online Piracy Act, that would criminalize a lot of really standard YouTube behavior and allow copyright holders to block access to websites without a court order. By all accounts, the bill is going to be fast-tracked through Congress in the coming weeks. But is copyright infringement on the internet even a real problem?

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So This is What it Takes to Get Congress To Act

September 7, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The patent-system-reforming "America Invents Act" looks set to sail through the Senate and be signed into law in a matter of days. Last night, the Senate voted 93-5to move it forward towards a final vote on passage, with members on both sides of the aisle hailing it as a bipartisan jobs measure. Sen. Jon Kyl [R, AZ], for example, said on the Senate floor yesterday that the bill would create "a powerful incentive for manufacturers to build factories and create jobs in this country," and Majority Leader Harry Reid [D, NV] said it would "unlock the job-creating potential of each patent."

Say what? Since when do Democrats and Republicans in the 112th Congress agree on a jobs bill? They've already failed to move forward with several jobs measures this year by getting caught up on unrelated, partisan issues, so what's so special about the patent bill that everyone's suddenly playing nice? I don't really know the answer to that for sure, but what I do know is that the other jobs bills that died this year did not have any corporate backing. But this one, on the other hand…

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First up in the big pivot to jobs that's going to sweep Washington when Congress comes back from August recess is H.R.1249, the "America Invents Act." The bill isn't exactly a response to the current unemployment crisis; it's designed to streamline the U.S. patent system, and it's been sitting around in Congress in various forms since 2005. Supporters of the bill even admit that job creation would be a "happy byproduct," not the main focus.

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The conclusions will probably come as a surprise exactly none of you, but a new study from the International Monetary Fund on the influence of campaign donations and lobbying politics is worth a mention because of the completeness of the research and the authority of its source. Two IMF economists, Deniz Igan and Prachi Mishra, have been examining how the targeted political activities of financial corporations between 1999 and 2006 affected how Congress voted on bills that strengthened or loosened regulation of Wall Street leading up to the 2008 crisis. They found -- surprise! -- that the more the corporations spent on campaign donations and lobbying, the more likely Congress was to vote in favor of deregulation. Furthermore, they found that the money Wall Street spent on lobbying members of Congress who were connected to Wall Street, either from having worked there in the past or through a former staff member who had gone through the revolving door to K Street, had a much stronger effect on their voting than on those who had no Wall Street connections

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You know what's sketchy? According to a new report, members of Congress who invest in the stock market consistently end up making abnormally high returns. Dan Froomkin reports:

Four university researchers examined 16,000 common stock transactions made by approximately 300 House representatives from 1985 to 2001, and found what they call "significant positive abnormal returns," with portfolios based on congressional trades beating the market by about 6 percent annually.

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Last year, the independent, non-partisan Office of Congressional Ethics asked the House Ethics Committee to look into some fishy fundraising activity by three congressmen -- Rep. Joseph Crowley [D, NY-7], Rep. John Campbell [R, CA-48] and Rep. Tom Price [R, GA-6]. The allegation was that they held an unusually high number of campaign fundraising events with Wall Street types in the days leading up to the vote on the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act and that this may amount to soliciting funds "in a manner which gave the appearance that special treatment or access was being provided to donors or the appearance that the contributions were linked to an official act."

Well, the Ethics Committee has issued their findings, and though they found that staff members were involved in fundraising and fundraising consultants were involved in setting up lobbyist meetings, they didn't see anything wrong with any of it.

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As part of their deficit cutting campaign, House Republicans are holding a vote today on a bill that would terminate the optional public funding program for presidential candidates and end public funding of party conventions. The bill would wipe out one of the last remaining laws designed to block corporations and special interests from taking total ownership of the federal election process. Yet, like everything else the Republicans have moved through the House so far, it hasn't had a single committee hearing or mark-up meeting.

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Explore Political Influence in One Click

September 17, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

Sunlight Foundation has just launched their latest tool for getting at the web of influence surrounding our elected officials, and it's definitely worth checking out -- Influence Explorer. It's a dirt simple way to get all the key info on the connections, financial or otherwise, between politicians, organizations and powerful people at both the state and federal level.

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Progress for Fair Elections

September 16, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

Publicly-funded congressional campaigns are about to move one step closer to becoming a reality. The Fair Elections Now Coalition announced this afternoon that the House Committee on Administration has scheduled a mark-up session of Rep. John Larson's [D, CT-1] Fair Elections Now Act, which would allow federal candidates to finance their campaigns with public funds rather than having to spend their time fundraising from special interests and corporations. The bill has been sitting in Congress for four years. This will be the first time it has advanced in the lgislative process at all, and it will likely lead to a full House vote in the coming weeks.

 

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