In the volatile political landscape of the United States, getting a straight answer out of a politician is virtually impossible, so don’t expect even the most trustworthy elected official to talk about who is stuffing their campaign coffers. If you want that information, you could spend the next week poking around on campaign finance websites, or you could just install Greenhouse, a browser plugin crafted by a kid who can’t even vote yet. Its creator, 16-year-old Nicholas Rubin, is helping add some much needed transparency to the folks bankrolling the U.S. political machine.
After installing the plugin on Chrome, Safari, or Firefox, Greenhouse will highlight the names of any members of Congress no matter what webpage you’re on. When you hover your mouse of the highlighted name, a list pops up showing the elected official, their political affiliation and state, and a full list of their biggest contributors, as well as dollar amounts. The pop-up also shows what percentage of the official’s donations were $200 or less, and which campaign finance measures they supported.
The data Greenhouse uses is pulled from OpenSecrets.org, and includes dollar figures from each politician’s most recent election cycle. There is, of course, the possibility that the lobbies that funded a congressperson’s last election aren’t necessarily the same ones currently contributing, but the chances are pretty good.
Greenhouse is an invaluable tool for deciphering the motivations behind the actions of Congress, and poking around on a political website is particularly eye-opening if you happen to have the plugin enabled. For example, I brought up an article on the recent failed bipartisan energy efficiency bill that was shot down via filibuster, with Senator John Cornyn playing a major role in its defeat. A quick mouse hover over Cornyn’s name revealed the likely cause: a campaign contribution of over $1 million from the oil and gas lobbies. What a coincidence!
But why would a 16-year-old spend his time creating software to empower voters? “Even though I am only 16 years old [sic], not quite old enough to vote, I am old enough to know that our political system desperately needs fixing,” Rubin notes in a letter on the Greenhouse website. ”I hope that this tool is one step in that direction.”
Money talks, and Greenhouse is the easiest tool available to show how and where cash is influencing politics. Rubin plans on continuing to support the plugin with added functionality in the future, so we can expect Greenhouse to get even better.
Exactly one hundred years ago, in Harper’s Weekly, Louis Brandeis made the frequently quoted statement that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Brandeis’s preceding sentence in the article may be less well known, but it is equally important: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases.” I created Greenhouse to shine light on a social and industrial disease of today: the undue influence of money in our Congress. This influence is everywhere, even if it is hidden. I aim to expose and publicize that disease through technology that puts important data where it is most useful, on websites where people read about the actions, or inaction, of members of Congress every day.
It is my hope that providing increased transparency around the amount and source of funding of our elected representatives may play a small role in educating citizens and promoting change. If you use the extension when reading about a Congressional vote on energy policy, for example, maybe you’ll discover that a sponsor of a bill has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the oil and gas industry. Or maybe you’ll learn that the top donors to a member of Congress who opposes tort reform are lawyers and law firms. I use the totals from the last full election cycle (generally 2011-12 for Representatives and 2007-12 for Senators) because it is the most complete. I also provide access to the most up-to-date 2014 data on OpenSecrets.org by clicking on the name of the member of Congress in the popup. Data in the popup will be updated later in this election cycle as 2014 contributions are more complete. Special thanks to OpenSecrets.org for providing access to the data.
The motto of Greenhouse is: “Some are red. Some are blue. All are green.” What it signifies is that the influence of money on our government isn’t a partisan issue. Whether Democrat or Republican, we should all want a political system that is independent of the influence of big money and not dependent on endless cycles of fundraising from special interests. The United States of America was founded to serve individuals, not big interests or big industries. Yet every year we seem to move farther and farther away from our Founders’ vision.
I plan to continue to refine this resource and expand it into other areas. If you have any feedback or ideas, please send them to me using the form below. I look forward to hearing from you. And feel free to spread the word using the Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus icons above!
Even though I am only 16 years old, not quite old enough to vote, I am old enough to know that our political system desperately needs fixing. I hope that this tool is one step in that direction.