MONEY IN THE U.S. SENATE
The purpose of this interactive visualization is to explore how money flows to members of the US Senate from corporations, individuals, and political or issue driven organizations. We hope we can shed some light on a complex system which is otherwise hard to grasp. With each passing federal election year, the money donated to run campaigns surpasses the last. The previous midterm congressional election in 20 brought in a total of over 3.6 billion dollars. It is reasonable to consider the possibility that the money donated to candidates when they are running (re)election could conceivably influence the work they do if and when they are victorious.A curious person might want to know if there are certain organizations that donate massively more money than others, who they donate to, and what committees those recipients sit on.
How much of a senator’s a total donation came from this organization?
Do more powerful senators who have been in office longer get a disproportionate amount of the contributions?
Do certain organizations donate to only one party?
“How influential is the donors’ money?”
“Do individual contributions influence senators’ adoption of causes that they don’t completely agree with?”
While drawing solid conclusions about whether or not the money actually buys organization the laws they want is beyond the scope of this project, we believe our visualization will reveal patterns of giving designed to maximize influence on the legislation that is presented in the Senate and raise new, possibly unexpected, questions.
The users we are targeting are political hobbyists, citizens in general, politicians, organizations, and anyone who has an interest in the ways in which money influences politics. By visualizing this data, we believe can educate and spur curiosity about how our government works and where power actually lies, as well as uncovering new questions and insights into where our laws come from and who they are designed to support.
UI Design, Prototyping, Interaction Design, Front-end development
Sarah Barlett, Jason Fernando, Rob Solomon
Due to the volume of data and the complexity of representing donations over time as legislators come and go, we chose to limit our visualization to the current Congress, the 114th, and the Senate only. We decided to combine several open-source databases into the visualization, including Govtrack (https://www.govtrack.us/), MapLight (http://maplight.org), and Federal Election Commission (http://www.fec.gov/).
First we sketched the designs on paper. We used prototyping techniques to bring the designs to life and evaluate them within the team and with the class. This helped us work rapidly and consider more ideas. Sketching many concepts helped us form a broader view of the system earlier ensuring a more cohesive design.
To move forward with the design we used Photoshop and Illustrator to create sets of detailed mockups. This approach was beneficial in showing our design progress.
A Bill-Centered View
A Contributor-Centered View
A Senator-Centered View
Our original idea was to visualize the influence of money on senatorial votes based on the positions stated by the companies themselves using the MapLight Bill Positions API. The primary problem we encountered with this approach is that very few bills brought forth to the Senate make it to a vote on the floor at all. Even when the bill is brought to a vote, it takes a 60% super majority to end debate and hold a vote.
Every senator serves on different committees, of which there are 16 in total (with subcommittees underneath those committees). Membership is scattered across both sides of the ideological aisle, but the representation of each is typically proportional to the representation of the ruling party in Congress. As a result, each committee has a majority of the ruling party and the chairperson of that committee belongs to that party as well. From the minority side, the ranking member (senator with the most years in the body) holds the leadership position on each committee for the opposing side.
The Senate is traditionally a slow-moving body due to the six year election cycles, and the committees have considerable power to kill a bill to prevent it from coming up to a vote. For someone in opposition to a bill, this seems to be the most cost-effective way to affect meaningful change with campaign donations. Seeing influence on bills based on the stated positions of companies and organizations is also tricky due to positions being stated on different related bills that are difficult to reconcile with the data we have available.
As such, we are now looking at seeing if there is any relationship between donations to individual Senators and the committees they are members of (or preside over). The visualization will also show which sides of the ideological divide that their money goes towards. This may reveal that donations on both sides of the ideological divide have the primary focus of steering the committee as opposed to individual senators’ votes.
In response to poster session feedback, we have deviated from our original idea of moving the senator positions in response to bills and increasing their size in relation to the money they raise. Instead, we are looking to replicate the seating chart of the actual Senate. As companies are selected, these senators will emerge from the field, leading to possibilities such as seeing if senators receiving money from specific interests sit in close proximity to one another. This will allow for areas of the seating map that are highlighted repeatedly as interest groups are explored to pop out, letting the user then explore that particular senator or group of senators.