Help:How to research members of Congress

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How to research members of Congress is a research guide. See the other research guides

General Research Tips

Researching voting records for members of Congress

Voting record information for all members of Congress can be found in Congresspedia's Legislation and Issues (U.S.) Portal. Other good sources of information on voting records are:

  • Project Vote Smart: Provides results of a National Political Awareness Test filled out by candidates, showing their positions on the issues as well as detailed campaign finance reports.
  • On The Issues: A database of how candidates have voted on a range of issues
  • [1]: A site with information on how legislation affects the current and aspiring middle class and grades for members of Congress
  • Progressive Punch: A progressive site rating candidates on how their support of certain issues
  • OpenCongress: An extensive database of legislation, votes, and information on members of Congress
  • 2decide.com has a good chart comparing the positions of the presidential candidates, many of which are members of Congress.

Researching money in politics: "The cash constituents"

If you want to know who a particular member of Congress is supposed to be representing, just look at a map. Senators represent states, House members represent districts. But if you want to know who makes up their circle of friends and allies in Washington, DC you need to pay very close attention to the people and organizations that pay the bills for their reelection campaigns – in short, the cash constituents.

Keeping track of those financial supporters is a surprisingly easy task these days, given federal reporting laws and the emergence of the internet. Figuring out what the data means is another thing. Here’s a quick primer to getting the lowdown on the cash constituents of your representatives in Congress and figuring out what the patterns mean.

Getting the Data from the Government

Federal law, passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal, requires that any contribution over $200 to a federal candidate, political party, or political action committee (PAC) must be fully disclosed and reported to the Federal Election Commission. The FEC then makes this information publicly available.

For years, that “public availability” meant that you had to show up at the FEC’s Washington office and go through their filing cabinets to have a look at the actual reports. In some states, you could also tap into the FEC’s computers by using a remote terminal at the state capital. If you actually took the trouble to do that, you’d be rewarded with page after page of bulky computer printouts listing all the contributions. Now the FEC has the latest data online and you can usually look at the reports on the day they’re filed, since PACs, parties and House candidates have to file electronically.

Good luck waiting for the same information from Senate candidates, by the way. The Senate has exempted itself from the electronic filing requirements. Senate candidates don’t even technically report to the FEC at all, but rather to the Secretary of the Senate. The way it actually works is that the FEC picks up the paper reports from the Secretary’s office – typically, computer printouts that run hundreds of pages long. The FEC then hires inputters to re-enter the printout data by hand into the FEC’s computers! The process usually takes about a month, if you’re lucky.

Even when the contribution records are available at the FEC, making sense of them is a challenge. In fact, even finding them can be a challenge. Here’s a guide:

You can even download the entire database of contributions into your home computer. (This is recommended only for the truly compulsive – and database savvy.) If you’re game, start here:

If you dig around the FEC’s website for a while – and especially their downloadable data sets – you might get the impression that you’re dealing with a government agency that’s not exactly on the cutting edge of technology. You’d be right. The downloadable databases, for example, were designed for the computer systems of the 1970s. They were written in the now-ancient COBOL programming language – remnants of which still haunt the databases. COBOL, for instance, had a hard time with negative numbers, and contribution refunds in the FEC database still have to be converted from that old COBOL notation. You’ll find a conversion table here:

If all this hasn’t discouraged you, by all means explore the FEC website on your own. The agency’s home page, and starting point for these and numerous other searches, is FEC.gov

But wait, there’s hope

Fortunately, there are now alternatives. A number of independent websites now post the FEC’s contribution database in its entirety. And some of them add valuable information to the raw data that will help you make sense of what’s important in the reports.

Foremost among these sites is OpenSecrets.org, the website of the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. CRP has been tracking money in politics since the late 1980s and their website can be as overwhelming as the FEC’s. But the information you’ll find there is both exhaustive and fascinating, and most of it can be found nowhere else.

The one thing CRP does that the FEC does not is attach a unique industry/interest group code to every contribution. They do this not just for political action committees – like the National Rifle Association PAC or the Sierra Club – but for individual donors as well, based on their occupation and employer. They also match spouses (and in some cases children) with the income-earner in the family. So if Henry Jones works for the 1st National Bank, his $1,000 contribution to his local congressman will show up as $1,000 from the banking industry. So will his wife’s $1,000 donation, if she listed her occupation as “homemaker” or some other non-income-earning profession. And so will anyone from the same family with an occupation of “student.”

CRP has been doing this industry coding since the 1990 election cycle, and now has more than 15 years of data on the giving patterns of more than 100 industry and interest groups that contribute to federal campaigns.

On the Sunlight Foundation website at SunlightFoundation.com you can also find an animated tutorial that will give you a guided tour of the information you can find in those industry profiles.

Profiling Your Representatives

Open Secrets also has detailed campaign contribution profiles for every member of Congress. You can access that section directly from the home page (www.opensecrets.org), either by filling in your Senators’ or Representative’s names or by simply entering your zip code.

You’ll find separate profiles for every two-year election cycle. As an example, here’s the current profile for Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert:

The opening page shows the summary financial numbers:

• How much money has the campaign raised. (The average winning House campaign in 2004 cost just over $1 million; Senate winners averaged about $7 million.)

• How much came from PACs vs. individuals vs. the member’s own pocket. (Typically House members get about 40% of their money from PACs; Senators get about 25%. Most of the rest comes from large individual contributions. Incumbents rarely spend their own money on reelection campaigns.)

• The breakdown in PAC contributions between business, labor and ideological groups. (Republicans get very little union money; for Democrats it’s an important source of campaign cash. Ideological groups typically play only a small role for incumbents, though their money can be important when first winning the seat.)

• How good a job they did in fully reporting the occupations/employers of their donors, as required by federal law. (Most members are above 90% in their disclosure.)

Menus along the side of the page will also give you access to the following information:

• Their top 20 contributors (by organization)

• A breakdown of their contributions by broad sectors (agribusiness, defense, health, etc.)

• A list of the 20 biggest industries/interest groups contributing to their campaign (e.g. lawyers, securities & investment, retirees, etc.)

• A geographic breakdown of their contributions (in-state vs. out-of-state, top zip codes and metro areas)

You can also look at a combined profile showing all the money they’ve collected since 1990 or since they were first elected to Congress (whichever is later).

Beyond Direct Contributions

Contributing to their reelection campaign may be the quickest way to a politician’s heart, but it’s not the only one. Many members of Congress – especially those who are politically ambitious and who don’t face serious competition in their home district – also operate so-called “leadership PACs” that collect money just like their campaign committees.

The money raised by leadership PACs is typically doled out to other candidates – generally to the most promising newcomers and to incumbents facing tough reelection campaigns. Twenty years ago, there were only a few of these PACs and they were run by members seeking to move up to party leadership positions in Washington (hence the name). These days, even freshmen are running leadership PACs. At last count there were more than 200 of them.

You can find a comprehensive list of current leadership PACs (and their sponsors) here:

Links to a member’s leadership PAC – if they have one – can also be found on their member profile pages.

If you want to look not just at contributions, but at the details of a member’s personal finances, you can find that on OpenSecrets too. Like all senior-level federal employees, members of Congress must fill out annual Personal Financial Disclosure reports detailing their properties, investments, outstanding loans, etc. The reports are filed annually, and images of the actual reports can be found by hitting the “Personal Finances” link on the member’s profile page.

Here’s the page for Dennis Hastert:

One caveat: the size of specific investments are listed not in actual dollars in these reports, but in dollar ranges, such as $1,001-$15,000; 15,001-$50,000, $50,001-$100,000, etc.

Research Bookmarks

A quick list of the sites the editor uses for Congressional research:

Journalism sites