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Kai Ryssdal: Even though Congress is out of town this month, the health-care debate rolls on. As does the age old question of how, or whether, political contributions affect how lawmakers vote when it comes down to it. In that vein there's a new online tool out today that puts donations from interest groups up against a calendar of who voted which way and when. Marketplace's Jeremy Hobson explains.
JEREMY HOBSON: The Web site Maplight.org has been helping ordinary Americans track money in politics for a couple years.
But now Maplight is illuminating the timing of contributions and relevant votes. I checked out the new tool with the site's Executive Director Daniel Newman.
HOBSON: I've clicked on Credit Card Holders Bill of Rights Act of 2009.
DANIEL NEWMAN: Yes.
HOBSON:And then what?
NEWMAN:So then what you're looking at is the date of each contribution that came in within a few days of that vote. So you can see, for example, like, Rep. Wilson from South Carolina. He received $2,000 from the American Bankers Association on April 27th. The American Bankers Association opposed this bill. And then three days later, Rep. Wilson voted no on this bill.
So should we assume that Representative Wilson voted no because of the money he got from the American Bankers Association? Newman says not necessarily, but at least we have the data.
NEWMAN: People really appreciate having an easy Internet tool to access information that would take days or months of work to put together manually before.
Not everybody's jumping for joy over all this transparency. Jeff Patch with the Center for Competitive Politics says the tool can lead to the wrong conclusions.
JEFF PATCH: This feature doesn't show how a particular congressman has supported an organization, for example, a union or a bankers association, over his or her career. It just shows a very small snippet of information that is more likely than not to be misleading.
He says it brings up the old question: Do campaign contributions alter lawmakers votes, or do donors support candidates who share their values?
I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.