Early this year, as the 2016 presidential contest got underway, a ProPublica team began a long-term project to examine the political system. While many other news organizations provide excellent day-to-day coverage of the campaign, our goal is to bring light to underlying changes in the structure and operation of 21st century U.S. democracy.
Our series is called “The Breakdown,” and we mean it in both senses of the word. There’s a palpable feeling among voters that the machinery of government has failed them or has been hijacked by special interests — thus the popularity, at the moment, of some presidential aspirants with little or no experience in governing. We also mean that we seek to break down the system into some of its component parts, in order to better explain how it functions.
Bitter political division is manifest in Washington. Of course, there’s nothing new about that. Machiavelli called such conflict a trademark of all republics. The writers of the U.S. Constitution deliberately structured the government to be an arena of competing interests. You can find complaints from commentators and historians about gridlock or its colonial equivalent as far back as you want to go. But we believe that every era has its defining characteristics and it’s the place of journalism to bring them into focus.
The growing flood of cash into politics is only one piece of the puzzle. While we’re tracking the looser campaign finance rules that have enhanced the role of the wealthiest Americans, we also aim to uncover less-visible avenues of influence in government in Washington and across the nation. At the same time, we are looking beyond political contributions to find the root reasons for why Washington spins its wheels on some of the biggest challenges of our time.
So far, among other things, ProPublica has told the behind-the-scenes tale of how the oil industry plays the long game in Washington, showing how corporations and interest groups accrue influence across election cycles almost without regard to who’s in power.
We’ve also shown why some plans with bipartisan support, like a permanent funding fix for crumbling roads and bridges, don’t move ahead, because Congress gets stuck on outdated political assumptions and ideological litmus tests. We explained the kind of congressional dealing that greased the skids for a bill that would speed U.S. approval for medications and medical devices, despite warnings about risks to patients.
We upended conventional wisdom about why working-class voters in some states are moving to the right, voting for politicians who want to slash the safety net they and their neighbors depend upon.
In campaign finance, our investigation of one Texas super PAC illustrated how the free-for-all has empowered a new class of political consultants, whose methods and behavior can be as disruptive to donors as to voters. We showed how the loosening rules have greatly enhanced the influence of political committees dominated by a single donor and how executives can use the state versions of super PACs to advance their personal or corporate agendas.
We’ve also pulled back the curtain on the inside strategies of lobbying groups. For one thing, special interests are often as eager to preserve a favorable status quo as they are in getting government to take an action to their benefit. To that end, gridlock can be a feature to be encouraged, not a bug, as when the traditional higher education lobby threw in with the for-profit sector to block new regulations from the Obama administration. And sometimes lobbyists play both sides of the fence, as with a new breed in the influence industry: Democratic consulting firms that, over time, have expanded from advising political campaigns into advising industry groups on how to reach Democratic lawmakers.
And we’ve looked into the conduct of government officials, including a story that was first to raise questions about whether Hillary Clinton used her private email account to tap into an undisclosed back channel for information on Libya’s crisis and other foreign policy matters. We also held Clinton accountable for what she actually did as a U.S. senator on the banking industry, showing that her record belies her tough ‘cut it out’ talk.
In another case, we found that U.S. embassies accepted gifts from Hollywood in the form of spiffy new home theaters while the studios lobbied the State Department on copyright policy and other matters.
Our team also has created online tools to help citizens monitor what their representatives are doing now. We created an app to help readers browse and search federal campaign filings for the latest data. Separately, we’ve explained why such reports from U.S. senators are so delayed — they’ve managed to hang onto a 40-year-old paper-based system that slow-walks its filings even as presidential and House candidates have to submit documents electronically in a timely way.
Finally, we’ve provided a tool for readers to see how many votes their representatives miss, and the lame excuses they provide for their absences.
Stay with us in 2016 as we continue to dig into many more stories like these. As always, we welcome your comments and suggestions.