Here’s the scoop on some of the best opposition research tools and online resources we use on a daily basis. Great tools for an up-and-coming opposition researcher.
With thousands of pieces of legislation, how do you cut through the BS and find that roll call vote no one wants you to see? Here are a few places to start.
1) Library of Congress’ THOMAS Database.
If your subject has served in the U.S. Congress, the Library of Congress’s THOMAS legislative tracking system is the definitive place to find federal legislation past and present. Here you can access plain language summaries, roll call votes, and even links to pages of the Congressional Record.
Pro Tip: Use the “advanced search” option to specify which Congress you’d like to search.
For both state and federal legislation, the Sunlight Foundation’s Scout application provides valuable real-time updates on pending bills. The web application will send up-to-date alerts to your inbox on a topic or specific bill of your choice.
Pro Tip: Scout’s filters allow you to subscribe to updates contingent on a specific event. This helps cut through the clutter if you only want to know, say, if the bill passed the House.
3) Open States.
Here is another project by the Sunlight Foundation, and while it is only in beta infancy, Open States can cut some serious time out of looking through state-level legislation. Open States funnels legislative resources from twenty different states into a sort of one-stop-shoppe for researching state legislatures. You can get bill updates, primary source documents, and roll calls without your browser ever landing on those clunky state-run sites.
Pro Tip: Use the filter under the bill tab to see only legislation sponsored by your target. This can give good insight into what his or her pet projects might be.
Campaign Finance Records
Get the skinny on who’s giving to whom, and why it matters.
1) Open Secrets.
For congressional campaigns, the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets project does a great job of giving an overview of who the largest campaign donors are, what industries are wielding the most power and a side-by-side analysis of all candidates in a given district. For example, if you think your target may be beholden to the banks, this would be the place to check for that.
Pro Tip: For some big donors, Open Secrets provides a “Heavy Hitters” analysis. This is shows aggregate donations for this cycle and previous divided up by the party of the recipient.
2) Federal Election Commission.
Straight from the horse’s mouth. The FEC collects campaign finance information directly from federal candidates and provides a searchable system to view records. As such, every number should be cross referenced back here.
Pro Tip: In some places the site allows for export to a spreadsheet file, which is great if you need to really dig into the data past what is provided.
3) National Institute on Money in State Politics.
If you are working on a target at the state level, this is one of the best equivalents to what Open Secrets does for federal races. This project pulls state campaign finance data from repositories held and maintained by each individual state and gives top donor and top industry statistics. As this project is very large and relies on weak data sources to begin with, much less of their data has been coded - which ultimately means that all numbers should be checked and confirmed with state-maintained campaign finance resources. Pro Tip: This is a good place to check for individual contributions at the state level. Since the data covers all 50 states, you will be able to find out if a target has personally contributed to state level races across the country.
Public Official Disclosures
Think your target might have a vacation home in the Bahamas? These forms, filed by elected officials, can often reveal some great nuggets.
For current members of Congress, this site provides a searchable database of trips taken, personal finances, foreign gifts and earmarks. This serves as a great place to research all the perks associated with being a member of Congress. Pro Tip: Legistorm provides a detailed list of all Congressional travel, where you can find those pricey trips taken on the taxpayer dime.
2) Open Secrets.
The Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets project is probably the best place to obtain personal financial disclosures for members of Congress. The site provides PDF files of the actual form filed with the House Clerk and great analysis of net worth, assets and liabilities.
Pro Tip: From the member financial profile, click “assets” to see an itemized list and a breakdown by industry.
3) Statement of Disbursements.
The House Clerk provides PDFs of all office disbursements for members of the House of Representatives. This includes every expense billed to the office, ranging from stamps to airplane tickets. While it requires a little digging, this can reveal things Legistorm didn’t pick up on.
Pro Tip: Since these documents are thousands of pages long, use in-text searching (Ctrl-F) to expedite the process.
Government Contracts & Federal Assistance
Well connected business owners get a lot of perks from the government. These tools will give you a way to keep an eye on that money.
OMB Watch’s FedSpending project catalogues federal contracts, government assistance and Recovery Act spending. This information can be used to see how much aid a certain business is receiving or as a way to look into federal money being channeled into a specific congressional district.
Pro Tip: In the upper right hand corner, you can modify your search criteria. Use this to search different fiscal years or to display more comprehensive information.
ProPublica’s Recovery Tracker is one of the best ways to research where money from the Recovery Act has gone. The system is designed for searching by geographic area, but if you are looking for a specific business or entity, type the name into the search bar at the top.
Pro Tip: ProPublica will actually email you the raw data on an individual state if you request it. Just click “get the data” near the top right of the screen.
This is the official government database for federal contracts, grants and loans. The site’s splash page search bar works fairly well when looking for a specific recipient and displays all contracts broken down by state on an interactive map. Pro Tip: Use the filters along the right side of the page to narrow your search by the type, agency, extent competed and numerous other toggles.