Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Putting the farm subsidy, earmark, and campaign donor databases together

A number of useful open government resources have been appearing on the internet in recent years. For example, the farm subsidy database from the Environmental Working Group, the "Pig Book" earmark reporting from Consumers Against Government Waste, and the campaign finance database from C-SPAN.

But what happens if we begin putting these resources together?

For example, I am especially interested in the money politics of districts whose Congressional representatives sit on the majority side of the House agriculture appropriations subcommittee, such as Representative Tom Latham (Republican 4th District Iowa).

Latham and his district show up in dark brown in the Environmental Working Group's map of Congressional districts that receive the heaviest subsidies ($4 billion in one district in ten years!). From this link, you can see the names of the individual farm subsidy recipients in the district, the largest of whom received over half a million dollars in 2004. Just for example, here is a detailed listing of the $840,000 received over ten years by Berg Farms.

The C-SPAN campaign finance file for Latham shows, of course, that the agriculture industry is his biggest source of Political Action Committee (PAC) donations and that farming is a leading occupation for individual donors (after doctors and the two non-revealing categories of "retired" and "homemaker"). Here is the list of individual farmer donors to Latham in the most recent cycle.

Not surprisingly, Latham can also be found prominently in the "Pig Book" summary for 2005, which lists relevant earmarks for Iowa that year:
$9,630,000 for projects in the state of Senate Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee member Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and the district of House Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee member Tom Latham (R-Iowa), including: $1,789,000 for the Iowa Biotechnology Consortium; $688,000 for the Midwest Poultry Consortium; $655,000 for human nutrition research; $600,000 for the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development; $419,000 for food chain economic analysis; $268,000 for livestock waste research; $250,000 for the Iowa Vitality Center; $231,000 for dairy education; and $100,000 for the Trees Forever Program. The Trees Forever Program, in partnership with the Aquila Company (formerly Peoples Natural Gas), distributes grants to groups and communities that are planting trees in their neighborhoods. A major component of the program is making sure that people are aware of the type of injuries trees can sustain during the winter from heavy loads of ice and snow. This project should be called the Deficits Forever Program.
Of course, it is almost unfair to poor Mr. Latham that he happened to be the first House agriculture appropriations subcommittee member whose name I found in the other databases. I would welcome it if somebody can figure out a more systematic way to automate the cross-linkages between these information sources, to find the most egregious examples of the subsidy - earmark - donations political nexus.

These are very active times for efforts to rationalize democratic public policy making through better exposure and public information -- see, for example the recent work of the Sunlight Foundation.

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