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Watch the Video: Fixing the System

Who's paying for the parties?
Fixing the System

There are two major strands of reform in the matter of money and politics today — campaign finance and earmark reform. Many legislators and citizens had great hopes for the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002 (Bi-Partisan Campaign Finance Reform Act). The legislation forbids federal candidates and national parties from raising unlimited contributions from corporations, labor unions, and wealthy individuals. But McCain-Feingold's critics say they money has just found another way in to the system through so-called 527 organizations which can receive unlimited donations from corporations, unions, and individuals and use them to influence elections as long as they don't endorse a particular candidate. What is the answer? More spending limits? Free media time. Increased public funding? Increased public awareness? (Learn more.)

The Internet has emerged as a surprise tool in political reform and citizen awareness. Of course many people have pointed to the rather vituperative blogosphere as either the forefront of citizen democracy or the demise of journalism into ranting and less-than-fact-checked speculation. But it's not the blogs that are garnering the attention of reformers - its the databases. First there are the many places where you can actually follow the money. You can start with Federal Election Commission which has jurisdiction over all subsequent campaign finance regulation. The Web site contains a searchable database of all campaign finance filings and a guide to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2004. Or you can benefit from the analysis of those FEC filings done by The Center for Public Integrity's LobbyWatch or The Center for Responsive Politics' site which contains comprehensive databases on 527s, PACS and breakdown of dollars by representative, major donors, donors by industry, and many others. To go local there's - The Institute on Money in State Politics' Follow the Money: The Institute on Money in State Politics.

As ON THE MEDIA and USA TODAY reported, there are a growing number of new sources on the web, some government-created and others gathering government data, which bring the inner workings of the government right to the average citizen's home computer. There are sites like Congresspedia, "the "citizen's encyclopedia on Congress" that anyone including you can edit. Congresspedia is a not-for-profit, collaborative project of the Center for Media and Democracy and the Sunlight Foundation.

There have been Congresswatchers online who have tracked what they consider federal "pork" spending for a number of years. In 2006 the attention has turned to publicizing the process of earmarks. Earmarking" is subtly different referring to the insertion of a special funding provision for a specific named project into legislation. An earmark faces criticism since these appropriations are often added without scrutiny of other lawmakers. Or as THE ECONOMIST defines it for their non-U.S. politics savvy readers: "Earmarks, for the uninitiated, are spending projects that are directly requested by individual members of Congress and are not subject to competitive bidding."

Earmark reform got a special mention in the President's State of the Union address and was, until recently, under scrutiny on the floor of Congress. In September 2006, The House of Representatives passed an internal rule that would require lawmakers to sign their names to some of the items they sponsor as special-interest provisions into major tax and spending bills. Critics say the reform doesn't go nearly far enough. Find out more about earmarks and discuss government reform in The Citizens Class.

Sources: The Center for Responsive Politics; The Center for Public Integrity; THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, "Lobby Reform Easier Said then Done;" ACFNew Source

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