December 20, 2007  ·  Lessig

The Sunlight Foundation has launched a distributed research project. The aim is to learn what happened to former members of Congress and staffers after the 1 year “cooling off” period has come to the end (and thus, they can go work for lobbyists). Using a very cool interface, you can help track down former staffers, and add the results to the research database. Begin here.

  • Seth Finkelstein

    Answer: “They go represent industries they previous legislated”.

    That wasn’t hard.

    Now what?

    I shouldn’t do this, but …

    Tomorrow, there shall be a distributed research project to figure out what happens if you go out in the rain. We shall perform acts of citizen-meteorology, and tear down the priesthood of the National Weather Service! And what about how bloggers took down Tex Antoine, huh, huh, huh? Go to the site “”, and you can make your precipitation contribution.

  • Steve Baba

    Sunlight – the concept not the foundation – has the noble goal of bringing negative acts to light, but has the well-known effect of just causing politicians to give positive speeches in the sunlight and driving the negative acts deeper.

    Instead of bribing a politician with a million dollar cash, a group may now hire the politician later – but how can one tell if it’s a bribe or not? Sunlight can’t solve this problem.

    Even with sunlight, there is the problem of analyzing the data. Even before the Internet, there was always plenty of data available to voters, but the classic public choice free rider problem that everyone’s business in no one’s business.

    I don’t see how such self-selected information could be statistically analyzed with any acceptable methodology since liberals are likely to report bad things on conservative in a different proportion than vise versa. Just like with Wikipedia, where Obama is a “magical negro” even any single data point would be suspect. And if you have to check every single fact, what’s the point. Even the selection of unchecked starting points would be bad.

    This seems like another example of techies having too much faith in technology – not uncommon with innovations as there used to be better living through chemistry (see the book 10 Myths of Innovation) – instead of expert political science opinions.

    More likely it will be the source of simplistic blog arguments as X worked on legislation for industry Y, and later X works for Y, bad, bad, evil people.

  • Steve Baba

    All these are off-the-cuff remarks that I may or may not stand by, but the obvious way to track past members of congress would be to develop some methodology to track all or sample with accuracy, than pay someone you can trust to track them.

    Obvious, unless one is a true-believe in Web 2.0 and the cult of amateurs.

  • James

    @Seth – of course it’s obvious, but I think the value is finding interesting ties between lobbyists and their former colleagues. A previous Sunlight project, helped to bring these things (already public record) to light and journalists picked up a few particularly troubling earmarks. Just like earmarks, there is arguably nothing wrong with working as a lobbyist. It’s the idea of showing people what’s out there so they can investigate if there is something more sinister going on.

    @Steve – Bringing people’s attention to the data is the real purpose, the site actually appears to link to other sites with most of this research already done, so one would assume the goal is to get people digging into it themselves. As far as there being the possibility for slant.. that’s true of the media, new media or old. The key here is that the data being collected is pretty much neutral ‘did they lobby’ not ‘did they bribe’ It appears to be a good way to educate people on the so called “revolving door” and see if anything pernicious pops up.

  • Steve Baba

    Aside from not using the media, much less any idiot who goes online, for any serious research, “there is always bias,” is not an excuse for using a highly problematic method – let’s just ask everyone who takes vitamins if they feel better – instead of a better method – let’s do a double blind study.

    I would suggest that there are better ways to show potential dangers of the revolving door being used to improperly influence legislation than second or third-rate research – which might even be counterproductive from a publicity angle as a “publicity stunt” in addition to useless research.

  • Ruthie

    I’ve always wondered what the issue is with former politicians and their staffers becoming lobbyists–particularly after a year has passed.

    Just what do we expect them to do with their lives? They’ve just spent years obtaining political expertise. So now society would like them to transfer to an industry that they’re unskilled in and start their careers over from the bottom?

    If there’s a problem, its not with the lobbyists. The problem is with the current Congresscritters. If they’re so prone to influence by their former colleagues then they’re going to be influenced by their golf buddies or their families. Power in every field relies on connections. While I don’t deny that connections can get one in the door, it typically cannot cause the person in power make an irresponsible decision. If Congresscritters are only getting information from lobbyists and not getting all sides of the story before they vote on legislation that’s their fault — they are the unprofessional ones.

  • Steve Baba

    Quickly, it’s an issue because without the one-year time limit, people would be writing legislation one day, then working for the industry the next day – or writing the legislation while they have an agreement to work for the industry next year.

    It’s similar to having your lawyer write your divorce agreement today while he is planning to work for your ex-husband tomorrow.

    And if your ex-husband is going pay excessively, it might be a bribe, not an honest-day’s-work with a conflict-of-interest.

    There are obvious tradeoffs between freedom-to-work and avoiding conflicts of interest. This is a complex issue, not a simple identification. For example, your lawyer later working for your ex-husband may or may not be a conflict of interest or outright taking a bribe depending on the time frame, any expectation of working for him in the future while he was working for you and so on.

  • Steve Baba

    Also people here in Washington generally grasp all sides of an issue and are not so easily swayed by a game of golf. I suppose even people who work at the Sunlight Foundation play golf – and are likely have better Christmas parties than conservative groups. But the Sunlight Foundation and similar foundations have little money – not even enough to hire a Ph.D. economist like me much less a member of congress. Just ask Obama how much he made working for a public interest group.

  • Seth Finkelstein

    @James – the problem is that you end up merely providing a factoid-mill for the Mighty Noise Machine. Why be unpaid researchers for them? Worse, it becomes another bait-and-switch, where people are tricked that they’re helping to make better government, yet the overall effect is overwhelmingly to feed ammunition to right-wing government-haters. That doesn’t make civic society any better. I’m quite serious, I’ve heard that you are sincere. But there’s a deep issue that the whole theory behind it is very mistaken. If you close your eyes and pretend this stuff turns into anything other than political football, you’ll just get kicked around.

  • Melanie

    The Sunlight Foundation will make former politicians more honest I hope.

  • Steve Baba

    “yet the overall effect is overwhelmingly to feed ammunition to right-wing government-haters”

    I think a larger effect would be to feed ammunition to left-wing business haters, such as Ralph Nader (speaking of unintended consequences Nader->Bush), but good point about right wing extremeists such as Ron Paul using the information – not to mention anyone just looking for “dirt.”

    Sen Clinton worked for Wal-Mart.
    Mayor Giuliani worked for …..

    “make former politicians more honest I hope.”

    likely just poor wording, but who cares about what FORMER politicians do, since they are out of office. The problem is what ACTING politicians do. But this does illuistrate a time-consistency problem of sunlight, since much of the sunlight is on former politicians when it’s too late.

  • Steve Baba

    Self Correction: The book I previously mentioned was not titled “10 Myths of Innovation” although it was organized in ten chapters each with a “myth of innovation” but is actually titled “The Myths of Innovation” by Scott Berkum.

    On of the myths was that innovation is always good such as:

    Better Living through Chemistry in the 60s
    Eugenics in the 30 (The Immortalists is also a good book)
    Air Planes would end war…(The Wright brothers had a theory that air observation would make surprise attacks impossible and that Brazilian airplane “inventor” even committed suicide after seeing his countrymen use airplanes to kill each other)
    Railroads would end war…
    The Internet would …


    Seth… Congratulations!

    You have won the 2007 Big Dick of the year award and are well on your way to repeating your win in 2008!

    Seriously though, you are kinda sharp and a bit funny.

    But, as with most things it is most savored in moderation…

    All the Best to you my friend.