Thursday, January 24, 2008

Money in Iowa Politics

January 24, 2008, 8:00 a.m.

The Register has done Iowans a favor this morning with its perusal of, and then reporting about, the "newly released state campaign finance disclosure reports for 2007." Jennifer Jacobs, "Democrat McCarthy Raises Most Money at $251,000," Des Moines Regislter, January 24, 2008.

But it has only scratched the surface.

"Knowledge Management" literature (for which the linked document is but the first on Google's list) draws a distinction between "data," "information," "knowledge: and "wisdom."

The disclosure reports, and the Register's reporting, provide the "data" -- or at least some of it.

What we now need is the additional data, and discovery of relationships, that can turn that data into "information" and "knowledge."

(I'll save for the day that happens an exploration of what "wisdom" might be with regard to Iowa's needed campaign finance reform.)

For example, as one reader commented following the Register's online story, "Why is it McCarthy's biggest donors were from out of state? Does this not raise any questions with anyone? What pull, and on what project are these people looking for help on?" ("TheWizard," 1/24/2008 4:36:06 AM).
If the Register is still interested in Pulitzer Prizes (it was once the proud possessor of a collection of them second only to the New York Times) -- not to mention the very substantial community service of cleaning up Iowa politics -- here are some of the questions to which they might want to seek answers.

1. "Follow the money." That was "Deep Throat's" advice to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they investigated and exposed the Watergate scandal ultimately leading to President Nixon's resignation. And it's my first bit of advice to the Register. Who is giving what to whom and what do they do with it? Individual Iowa legislators tell their constituents they need money for re-election campaigns -- even when they're running unopposed. What do they do with it? Much is simply passed through to their party's leaders, or the state Democratic or Republican organizations. Why? What do they, what do their contributors, what do we, get for that money? To what extent is this pass-through procedure used to shield from public disclosure how much is really coming from special interests to party leaders? And, in reverse, what are party leaders (and the special interests they may be representing) gaining by passing out money to other members? Where do the major state parties get the (largely unregulated) money they have and how do they spend it?

2. Who are these donors and what are their interests? A name (of a donor) and amount (of a contribution) is data. "Knowledge" requires that we know the economic or other interests of that donor. Sometimes that's easy, when the donor is a registered lobbyist for a special interest, or the CEO of a corporation, or is known to be a highway contractor or major land owner. At other times it's more difficult, especially if the money is coming through employees (who have been given raises and are then asked for checks, which are bundled, donated and amount to little more than an illegal contribution from a corporation), spouses, children, relatives or friends of that individual.

3. What is being bought? Some special interests are regular donors. They are like the wealthy Texan, asked by the airline ticket agent where he wanted to go, who replied, "It makes no difference; I've got business everywhere." Some of those funding Iowa's campaigns always have some kind of business with the legislature or governor -- or know that they might. Others are primarily focused on a specific bill they want to defeat, or have enacted, or an earmark, tax break, or bit of "corporate welfare" cash they would like from the state's taxpayers. In any case, "knowledge" requires that we know the relationship between who is giving and what they are getting: what bills on their behalf were introduced by party leaders, or individual legislators, who benefited from their contributions? If they gave to the governor, or other executive branch officials, what agency decisions affected their economic interests? (The rule of thumb in Washington is that major contributors get at least a 1000-to-1 return on their money; contribute $1 million and get $1 billion of government largesse in return. For documentation see, e.g., Nicholas Johnson, "You Pay $4 or $4000," Des Moines Register, July 21, 1996.)
There are lots more questions to ask and trails to follow, but hopefully these few illustrative examples will get our editors and reporters thinking about how their "data mining" these golden nuggets could end up providing some real "knowledge" -- and maybe someday even "wisdom" -- for their readers, and a few extra prizes to hang on the walls of the board room and news room.

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