Money in Politics: A Graphic View


“In an extreme view, the world can be seen as only connections, nothing else…a piece of information is really defined only by what it’s related to, and how it’s related. There really is little else to meaning.  The structure is everything.”

Weaving the Web:  The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of WWW, p. 12.




The above statement by Tim Berners-Lee could be viewed as a research agenda for the study of the influence and role of money in politics.  That is, money in politics “is really defined only by what [or whom] it’s related to, and how it’s related.” Research in the field focuses on who gets how much, where it comes from, and for what purpose.


It was this point of view that motivated the development of the program presented on the following page of this website. It is used there to illustrate the patterns of campaign contributions flowing from various industries to members of three dozen U.S. House and Senate committees.


Impatient and impulsive readers may prefer to try out FlashGraffer before reading the discussion and instructions to follow.  Go ahead. But some of the information below should be helpful. In addition, the user should know that the program has only been tested using Internet Explorer 7, and that the Adobe Flash Player must be installed.


An experimental version that does not use the Adobe Flash Player is avail here.


The numerical data used were obtained from the web site of the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP).  Their web site is, and contains a wealth of data pertaining to federal election campaign monies. Among the data CRP makes available for direct downloading are contributions--from individuals, associated PACs, and their totals—from the top 20 industries that contribute to each congressman or senator. Only the total amounts—contributions from industry PACs plus those from individuals employed in those industries—are used herein.


The CRP makes certain of their data available to users via a technique that makes use of API’s, or Application Programming Interfaces.  To obtain the data used on the following page, a congressman’s number and other coded information was submitted, and the amounts contributed by the top 20 industries to that congressman were returned. This information was obtained for each member of the 110th Congress (2007-2008).  The lists of the names of the members of 36 House and Senate committees were also obtained from the same website, allowing grouping the data by committee. Hence, when you go to the next page, you must first select, with a left-button mouse click, one of the committees from the list box, click on “Click to Start”, and then follow a couple of promptings in order for a graph to be displayed.


While there may be no additional factual information presented in the diagrams created by FlashGraffer other than that which was contained in the numerical data obtained from CRP ( , there are at least two benefits that result from the graphical representation of the data. First, the maze of interconnecting linkages of contributions from industries to members of the committee provides a striking visual representation of the quantity of such linkages. The resulting visual artifact illustrates the dense web of associations between the industries and congressmen in a way not easily grasped from the same information presented in a table format. For one thing, the entire table with some 60 rows and 50 columns, or more, would not even fit on a single page.


Second, the graphics-driven layout of the page provides a framework for exploring the data in more detail for individual members of the committee or for individual industries, as well as subsets or selected groupings of each, while retaining the visual effect. The numerical detail is superimposed on the graph, in an easily understood format.


Several of the House committees have more than 60 members, resulting in hundreds of linkages and requiring a small font to display them all on one page. Some users might object that when all of the links between the various industries and the members of these committees are displayed simultaneously they interfere with one another to such an extent that it is impossible to identify the individual links. But that is precisely the point! There is so much money washing around the political system that it is very difficult to identify the effects of any particular source upon a given congressman. This is not merely a visual phenomenon.  It is just as true when these committees meet in the presence of representatives and lobbyists for the various interested industries that might be affected by the their decisions. The money may already have passed hands or been committed and won’t be visible in the hearing room, but it exerts an invisible effect upon the meeting place and any decisions reached therein. The connections still exert their influence, even if they cannot be seen.


Several interactive options of the web page created by FlashGraffer and some examples are now described.


  1. Clicking on the column heading labels “Received” or “Contributions” sorts the respective data by dollar amounts, in descending order.  Clicking on either a second time re-sorts the data alphabetically by name of congressman.
  2. Clicking on the name of an individual congressman  or industry results in a display that shows only those lines emanating from the name that was selected.  Subsequent names can be similarly selected.  Clicking on the button labeled “ResetAll”, or clicking anywhere near the center of the graph area, will restore all previously displayed linkages.
  3. After one of the committee member names has been selected (by clicking on it) showing the links between that individual and those industries which contributed to him or her, the figure can be made more presentable by clicking on the button labeled “Simplify.”  This has the effect of re-drawing the linkages using only those names that are relevant, and displays the industries in descending order based on the amounts contributed to the member selected.

·        This action will show the 20 industries that contributed the most to the selected member.

·        All members can be restored by clicking on “ResetAll.”

·        This feature can also be used when a single industry is selected, showing the members receiving contributions from that industry.  It can also be used when more than one committee member or industry are selected (see items 4, 5, and 6 below).


  1. With the members’ data sorted in descending order by amount, the following options are available:
    1. Click once on the word “Members”, then
    2. Move the cursor down the column of member names.  As this is done, certain information is displayed at the bottom, namely

                                                               i.      The row number corresponding to the location of the cursor;

                                                             ii.      The percent of total contributions received by members from row 1 down to the currently highlighted row;

                                                            iii.      If the left mouse button is clicked once with a particular row (row k) highlighted, the included rows (from 1 to k) will be spread out within the column.  Depending on how many rows are being displayed, the font size will be adjusted.

                               iv. Clicking two times on the word “Members” will return the column display to the complete list. This can also be accomplished by clicking on the “ResetAll” button.

  1. All features under item 4 are also available for the columns representing industry data.
  2. Several individual names can be simultaneously selected and shown as a group.  This example will use the three defense-related industries to illustrate (These industries will be included if the Sentate Armed Services committee is selected, for example.


    1. Click on “Start Multiple Select” at the bottom center.
    2. In the industries column, move the cursor to highlight, and click on, each of the following:  Defense Aerospace, Defense Electronics, and Misc Defense (This assumes you have selected a committee that receives contributions from these industries.  Any other industries would work just as well.)
    3. Click on “Stop Multiple Select” at the bottom center.  The linkages and data now displayed reflect contributions to committee members from the three defense industries.  
    4. Clicking on the “Simplify” button will clarify the pattern of linkages for the industries and members involved.                                                         

Note: if less than the complete list of members or industries is selected the numerical data displayed will only reflect those members or industries which are actually selected and visible.

  1. The button at the bottom of the diagram labeled "Chg Colors" converts the background color of the graph to white and the font color to black, making the image more suitable for printing.  A hard copy of the graph can be obtained by right-clicking on it, then selecting "Print."
  2. A final option is provided by the “Sort by Party” button.  Clicking on this button will divide the displayed members’ names into two groups, by party.  For each party, the greatest amounts will appear near the center, with Ds decreasing upwards, Rs decreasing downwards.


There are several steps that could be taken to make the approach described here more interesting and useful.  One would be to incorporate the ability to click on one industry, or perhaps several, and quickly have access to the campaign contribution data for major firms within that industry, such as the top 20 firms based on their contributions, from PACs and individual employees, to members of a specific committee. An alternative would be to select the 20 firms with the most federal government contracts.  Building on this might be an attempt to utilize data collected by CRP that relates lobby firms that are employed by individual major companies in specific industries.  The lobby firms which are financially connected to a list of major companies in a particular industry would comprise a third axis in the graphical representation, making it possible to aggregate not only those contributions related to a specific firm to one or more members of a committee, but to include also the contributions flowing from lobbyists that those same firms hire.  Visual depictions of these relationships would highlight the fact that lobbyists are, for the most part, merely hired guns who help channel the streams of campaign contributions and other favors that flow to congressmen and senators.


A very forceful application of such a technique would be to shed instant light on earmark appropriations.  The graphical depiction of the linkages between the beneficiary firm for a particular earmark, the lobbying firms hired, and the campaign contributions of employees of the beneficiary firm as well as the associated lobby firms would be a compelling exhibit. It may be true that constituents look favorably on federal dollars rightfully  “returned” to them who paid the taxes. But they might also be interested to see exactly which individuals benefitted from the earmarks, and how much ultimately was returned to their Congressman from those who benefitted.

 An additional set of data that are now being collected by CRP, and which might be amenable to similar display techniques, are those relating to the revolving doors between Congress, industry, the administration, and lobby firms.


Finally, while campaign contributions are an extremely important element in understanding the political process, along with revolving-door jobs and the advantages they provide, another major element is the number of jobs within congressional districts that are under the control of various governmental contractors or firms otherwise seeking influence.  It has been asserted, for example, that the Lockheed Martin Corporation provides employment in virtually every congressional district in the nation, certainly a majority of them. Such a wide deployment of their activities may not be economically efficient, but it is very politically expedient. Associating any such geographically based employment data available, using GIS windows actively interlinked with graphics displays as described above, might lend further insight and motivation to issues pertaining to money in politics.


The BSD license under which this program is distributed may be seen here.


A zipped file containing the source files for programs used, sample files, and additional description of the code and other files may be found here.


(Laurence A. Toenjes: