We are a couple of months into the new and terrifying administration of he whose name shall not be uttered, and much of the political media narrative centers on the other-worldly goings-on at the erstwhile center of world power, aka the White House. Crazier and crazier details of secret meetings with foreign officials by swamp creatures like Erik Prince (of Blackwater fame) splatter out across the interwebs. Keyboards get worn out by hacks pecking away at palace intrigue pieces à la House of Cards in a life-follows-art tangle. Five-part series in ALL CAPS (well, not really, but the language could certainly be symbolized thus) by the LA Times make clear the paper’s unbridled disdain for the orange-headed-reality-star-in-chief.
This stuff is pure entertainment gold for us political junkies because it is better than fiction: it is reality TV’s masterpiece. I gobble it up as fast as I can get it, but just like southwestern-nacho-cheese-sour cream-jalapeño-flavored chips, you can’t live on it. You need to eat your broccoli and do some honest-to-god research into who voted how on what. You know, like, actual facts? I know, I know, Russian intrigue is sexier, but facts and broccoli get you through the night.
Fired up by the nationwide Indivisible movement, I head up to my Senator, Susan Collins’s district office with a dozen or so of my equally-pissed-off progressive friends every Tuesday, and we rail away at the staffer about upcoming votes and how we’d like the Senator to vote. That got me curious about her past voting record. Finding out how a senator voted was surprisingly hard to do in the past. You could go to the Senate’s official voting record and see the vote tally, but to extract the vote of your senators into some kind of easily accessible form would take a week of clicking and cutting and pasting, something only a low-paid political intern would be forced to do.
Desperately trying to avoid that hard work, I stumbled across ProPublica’s fantastic new tool for pulling up your representative’s voting record with a couple of clicks. You may have heard the President’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, recently labeling them as a liberal fake-news propaganda outfit. Hardly. ProPublica, a non-profit with 50 journalists, was founded in 2008 by Paul Steiger, the former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, not generally known as a liberal rag. It has several Puliitzer-prize-winning pieces to its credit.
Spicer and his boss hate this kind of “enemy of the people” journalistic work because knowledge is power-to-the-people. Now that John Q. Publique can saunter over to his computer and pull up all the votes his representatives have made, he might be interested to know that his senator voted to eliminate the Obama-era FCC’s rules requiring internet service providers ask for your permission before selling your browsing history to anyone who can afford it. Hmm, John don’t really want his internet surfing habits getting around, Jill might frown on that if she knew. John gets mad and starts calling his Senators, and another activist is born.
Using the tool is pretty simple, you just type in your zip code to get a list of your representatives. Clicking on any of them brings you to their voting record page with a list of recent bills and how they voted. It is a little hard to figure out which bill is which unless you know the number, but there’s a helpful description if you click on the bill number. I took me about a minute to find the internet privacy roll-back vote. Senator Collins voted to let the ISP’s steal your data without your permission. ProPublica makes it easy to look at the vote count and read the bill, S.J. Res 34, in all its obfuscatory glory. Armed with this information, I asked her staffer about the Senator’s vote on a recent Tuesday visit, and he murmured something about how she thought the rules were unfairly favoring certain corporations. Twelve of us glared back at him. How unfair it is to John Q. seems not to be of concern to the Senator. Incidentally, Maine’s other senator, Angus King, sided with us internet users against the bill. Nice guy, for a wealthy former businessman.
There’s a very helpful statistic right at the top of her page that tells me Collins voted against her party 15.4% of the time in the 115th congress. Senator King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, has voted against them 20.2% of the time. It turns out that Collins is a real maverick, since the average Republican senator votes against party 2% of the time. Or is she? ProPublica makes it easy to find out how many of her counter-party votes mattered by clicking on the statistic. Of the 16 votes that she took against her party, none of them mattered. Her party’s position was adopted in each of the cases. In other words, she never voted against her party as a deciding vote. She gets to brag about her “moderate” voting record to constituents, but remains a faithful lapdog in Mitch’s kennel. ProPublica’s tool makes it easy to see the sneaky pattern.
OK, you ate your broccoli, and found out how your senators voted. Of course, you have no idea why they voted the way they did, but you might be curious to see if there’s any connection between how they voted and who sends them gobs of money. The good folks at OpenSecrets.org let you follow the money with their online money tracking tool. I learned from their site that Senator Collins gets a scant 2% of her fundraising money from people who send her less than $200. Donations over $200 from individuals make up 51%, and PAC money makes up 44%. That might help you understand why the Senator routinely votes against the little guy and for big business.
Senator King’s numbers look quite a bit different. He raised 10% from small donors, 69% from large donors, and only 18% from PACs. There’s another striking difference: King’s total fundraising was about $3.5 million, but Collins topped King two to one, collecting $6.2 million. Why does one senator need twice the money of the other in a single state?
I don’t know the answer, but these two tools will keep me busy for a while coming up with a whole list of questions that will make the staffer squirm. I’m absolutely sure that Collins isn’t used to dealing with constituents who have so much information at their fingertips. Senator Collins has carefully curated her moderate image, but the more we get this sort of data into the hands of the people, the more difficult it will be for her to keep up the moderate facade, and although she’s not up for re-election until 2020, I’ll be spending some pleasant time monitoring her votes and her fundraising from the comfort of my easy chair.
It turns out I like broccoli.
Pete Kalajian is a teacher and learner who realizes that his time on the earth is short and is trying hard not to waste too much of it, with varying degrees of success. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @peterkalajian on twitter.