"Volunteering at MAPLight Sharpens
a Librarian's Search and Citizen Skills"

I have always looked for ways in which to take my skills in legal research, and interest in both current events and US Congressional and California legislative processes, and apply them outside my work environment, where I am employed as a law librarian at a corporate law firm.

In August 2009, I found that opportunity, when I searched Craig’s List "Non Profit" and found a posting for an unpaid research internship at www.MAPLight.org. The "map" in "MAPLight" is actually an acronym for "Money and Politics" and the non-profit, non-partisan organization, aims to "illuminate the connection" between the two.

I was immediately intrigued, especially when I saw that MAPLight had won numerous awards for it’s work, including the 2008 Best Reference honors from Library Journal. When I eventually began interning, I was delighted to discover another librarian on staff, Steve Toub. Too often, research organizations fail to employ those expert, professional researchers – us!

It was easy to see why MAPLight was award-winning, and why librarians liked it. While not exactly intuitive to use (luckily for users, the site does provide a helpful how-to video and research guides), MAPLight provides a wealth of information of interest to librarians and citizens.

The way that MAPLight works is that they take campaign contribution data from the Federal Election Commission ("FEC") via the Center for Responsive Politics ("CRP") and combine that information with data from the Library of Congress’s THOMAS (via the non-profit GovTrack) for current bills before Congress. Utilizing Web 2.0 mash-up technology, they are able to show users which interest groups donate to which politicians (the FEC / CRP piece) and how these politicians voted on bills (the THOMAS / GovTrack piece).

What the data ultimately reveals is whether or not legislators vote for, or against, the interests of their major donors.

MAPLight cites all of its sources and provides PDF copies that of all the materials relied upon by its researchers, empowering users to read and analyze the information for themselves.

Here is an example of how MAPLight works, using a bill that I researched from the 2012 Congress, HR 5820: "The Toxic Chemicals Safety Act." No votes have been taken, but already four organizations have logged support for the bill, and two organizations have come out against it. The organizations that do not support the bill are from the interest group sector "Chemicals" and the supporting organizations are from interest groups in the "Environmental Policy" and "Building Materials" sectors. If a user wants to know why MAPLight believes that the Chemical industry does not support this bill, they can click on the link "Need Proof?" and they will see the following, with an attached PDF:

American Chemical Council
Testimony of Calvin M. Dooley, President and CEO American Chemistry Council: Hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection. Cong., 2nd Sess., (2010). (Testimony of Calvin M. Dooley). Retrieved July 29, 2010, from Dooley.Testimony.07.29.2010.pdf

They can then read Mr. Dooley’s Testimony and will find this quote, among others,"our assessment of H.R. 5208 as currently drafted promotes unworkable approaches to chemicals management" and confirm that the American Chemical Council does not support the bill as currently drafted.

MAPLight also allows users to look up any elected federal legislator and see who their top donors are, by industry and by zip code. For example, US Representative Barney Frank, who Chaired the House Committee on Financial Services in 2009: his top three donor categories were from the sectors that his committees is tasked with regulating: Insurance, Securities & Investment, and Real Estate. Furthermore, seven of his top 10 contributing zip codes are from the metro DC area, i.e., interest groups or lobbyists with offices near the Capitol (and not donors located his home state).

MAPLight is a truly non-partisan organization, as data about all US and California legislators is represented, regardless of their party affiliation, and interest groups include everything big business to unions, and everything in between. If MAPLight has a point of view, it is simply this – to give citizens the data they need in order to draw their own conclusions, with one big hint, that you probably already knew – money plays a large role in our political system. What you choose to do with information is up to you.

Resources Cited

Further Reading

A version of this article was published in Special Libraries Association, SF Chapter, Bayline, Oct./Nov. 2010 issue.

Sara Fox Dudley Attorney at Law