Some tools that might help the Pajamas Media's Transparency ProjectBy Bill Allison Jan 05 2011 9:01 a.m.
Roger L. Simon, writing at Pajamas Media, announces a new transparency project, soliciting suggestions from readers on what the blogosphere-bloomed news organization should dig into. I wouldn't presume to play assigning editor for the effort, but hope I can help by pointing to some resources (full disclosure--many, but not all, are built by or supported by the Sunlight Foundation) that might help Pajamas Media readers do some digging on their own and get the ball the rolling.
Simon notes that government spending is a big issue, and starts by asking about spending on government employees. He writes, "Some of these questions have been answered on LegiStorm, a website looking into government transparency that I highly recommend. They even disclose congressional staff salaries. But, unless I missed it, there is nothing on the salaries of the myriad Presidential Czars and their staffs. Perhaps that is something someone in our readership can look into–or can recommend other sources."
Actually, the Asbury Park Press has an incredible searchable database of executive branch salaries, current through 2009, obtained from the Office of Personnel Management--online here. The Obama administration has posted salary information for top White House personnel here. Interestingly, I ran the names of a few of the White House "czars" through both datasets, and didn't find the individuals, but that I certainly didn't check everyone.
From the comments, I noted that personal enrichment by members of Congress was the first suggestion offered. The Center for Responsive Politics digitizes data from congressional financial disclosures, makes them searchable and readable--a good place to start when digging into the assets members accumulate while in office (note also this Wall Street Journal story, on members betting the market would go down during the 2008 financial crisis, this Wall Street Journal story on staffers getting into the act, and this BusinessWeek story noting a new study that found that members of Congress, overall, failed to beat the market. OpenSecrets.org also has data on lobbying, the revolving door, political action committees, and tons of federal campaign finance information.
Tracking foreign influence on Congress was also suggested--here. Sunlight digitizes thousands of pages of disclosures of meetings with members and Congress, their staffs, and executive branch officials as well as campaign contributions made by lobbyists for foreign governments, political parties and other entities required under the Foreign Agent Registration Act. All available at our Foreign Lobbying Influence Tracker, which was just recently updated with 2009 data.
This commenter suggests looking into nonprofits that get government grant dollars; USASpending.gov has some of that data; using the advanced search function (scroll down!) you can limit results by type of organization--with nonprofit being an option.
A few other useful tools (sorry, too many comments to go through one by one) that respond to some topics raised in other comments: TransparencyData.com has data on state and federal campaign contributions, federal lobbying, congressional and presidential earmarks, and federal contracts and grants. InfluenceExplorer.com is sort of the data equivalent of Readers Digest--quick and easy graphics and tables on who gives, who gets and who lobbies. Poligraft.com is one of my favorites--run a news story or a press release through it and it picks out names of politicians and political contributors and finds cross-references, if any. Also, don't neglect to check the White House visitor logs.
I came across the Pajamas effort via InstaPundit.
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