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Sadly, we live during a time when the U.S. Congress has earned a much-deserved reputation for whoring itself out to the highest bidder. The latest committee hearings on SOPA heightened the average tech geek’s frustration with Congress, where a Congressional committee lined up several supporters of SOPA (the entertainment industry and the Chamber of Commerce, to name two of five), while only allowing the testimony of  a Google representative on the other side. Does money play a role in this? While it is impossible to get inside the head of a congressperson, the money trail can be pretty damning in some instances. How do you easily check the money trail? MapLight can help.

MapLight is a website, run by a nonprofit organization, that tracks money and influence in the U.S. Congress, the California legislature, and the Wisconsin legislature. It does this by combining legislators’ voting records on bills, supporting and opposing interests for each bill, and campaign contribution data from the Center for Responsive Politics, the National Institute on Money in State Politics, and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

A look at the site’s “Protect IP” Act entry shows how the site works. The site will list basic information about a bill, such as a bill summary, the sponsor, and the bill’s status. The site then lists total contributions given to Senators from interest groups that support the bill, and oppose it. In this bill’s case, over $45 million dollars was given in contributions to elected officials by those who support the bill, and $26 million was given by those who oppose it. The contributors in favor of the bill include supporters of the pharmaceutical industry, the motion picture industry, and entertainment unions, among others. Supporters of financial companies, universities, human rights, and “online computer services” were categorized as those who oppose the bill, and contributed the $26 million. The site also breaks the numbers down for each congressman, showing contributions in each column.

There is no perfect way to measure influence, since contributions aren’t earmarked for a particular bill (as far as we know at least). But it sure helps to see where a congressperson’s contributions originate.

Does seeing numbers like this shake your trust in our system of government, or just reinforce what you already knew?