How Money Gets into Our Politicians’ Pockets

Stopping the flow of special interest campaign dollars starts with understanding how it gets there.
This post is 24 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like

Political donations are a tangled web. Convoluted with layers of cryptic reporting categories and disclosure requirements, the public’s understanding of money in politics is often limited at best. Sightline is working to unveil this aspect of modern American politics with an eye toward illuminating how moneyed interests muddle our path to a sustainable future.

In that spirit, we’ve created a sort of field guide for understanding how political money can be legally distributed and how that money can be spent by its recipients.

How money gets to candidates

Depending on how donors want to give their money (and how much scrutiny they want to be subject to) they can choose among a range of options with a dizzying variety of spending limits and disclosure requirements. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) establishes these limits, and states can add further restrictions, just as long as they don’t undermine the limits set by the FEC. In the Northwest, Washington sets several further restrictions beyond the FEC rules (see the full breakdown here), while Oregon is one of only eight states that does not place any additional restrictions on political donations.

A direct donation is money given by a donor to a candidate’s campaign with no middlemen or organizations in between. These gifts are capped at $2,500 per election, though you are allowed to donate in both the primary and general elections for a total limit of $5,000. Donors who want to give more can do so, provided that they direct the funds to a candidate’s “leadership PACs,” which have no spending limits. (A political action committee, or PAC, is simply a means of pooling money for a common cause. We’ll delve deeper into them below.) These expenditures must be disclosed to the public—the date, donor’s name, the gift amount, and city and state of origin—though federal election rules only require donors who give more than $200 to candidates or PACs to disclose their identity. Read more »

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District-Only Voting is Bad for Voters, Councilors, and Communities

Representative democracy hangs in the balance in Whatcom County.
This post is 23 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like

“Whatcom’s electoral options showcase how some voting systems enhance democratic representation, while others degrade it.”

A proposed new coal export facility just north of Bellingham, Washington, has created a furor of electoral activity as proponents and opponents of dirty fuels vie for control of the Whatcom County Council. But champions of representative democracy should also take notice: Whatcom’s electoral options showcase how some voting systems enhance democratic representation, while others degrade it.

In November, Whatcom voters will have the chance to vote on two potential amendments to the County Charter. The first would switch to district-only voting for six out of seven council seats with one seat at-large. The second would retain the current system of district-only primaries and county-wide general elections, but would re-draw the district boundaries to create five new districts in place of the current three. Unfortunately, voters will not have the opportunity this fall to vote on proportional representation, because conservative Charter Review commissioners blocked it from going to the ballot.

What do voters want in a representative democracy? Voters expect 1) to elect councilors who reflect their views and 2) that the council overall will reflect the views of voters overall. Voters expect councilors 3) to be responsive to concerned citizens and 4) to work together to craft county solutions. Finally, voters might hope 5) that regular people, like them, could run for office. Read more »


Weekend Reading 8/28/15

Our future climate war, the 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and overrated salad greens.
This post is 217 in the series: Weekend Reading


Following up on one of the big cultural questions that phenomena like the Amazon company can pose to America…. Like, “Could cheaper goods actually be bad for consumers?” Authors United argued just that recently in a complaint to the US DOJ—one which likely goes over the heads of most Amazonians—that the company’s monopoly and monopsony on the book market deprives consumers of diversity and quality in what they can read.

Salad greens, people—they’re overrated. (And the logical conclusion is that it’s time to switch my salad for a sundae. Can do!)

Been to a diversity training lately? Me, too. Here’s a valuable take on them you might have missed.

A new study, fueled by a tool so delectably called a “Hedonometer,” gathered some interesting trends in how the masses communicate about climate change—via Twitter. Read more »

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Video: The Art of Talking Climate Science

Four messaging tips for climate scientists.
This post is part of the research project: Flashcards

Communicating science to non-experts in compelling, convincing ways feels more important than ever. But the accepted language of academic reporting as well as the established norms of most scientific fields can set scientists up for trouble.

Here’s a perfect example: When the International Panel on Climate Change says “very likely” they mean greater than 90 percent. But researchers have found that to a non-scientist, “very likely” sounds more like a 62 percent chance. That’s a big difference. And on the flip side, when scientists say “very unlikely,” they mean less than a 10 percent chance. But the rest of us hear a totally different story, guessing it means something like a 41 percent chance—far more probable than it actually is. These misunderstandings show up among non-scientists all over the world. And the consequences may be grave.

Political opponents of climate action use confusion to sow the seeds of doubt and stall progress.

So, what’s a scientist to do when a news reporter calls?

Here’s a short video outlining four messaging guidelines to equip scientists with compelling messages. These tips are adapted from research and communication strategies developed by climate science messaging experts Richard Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol (

(Want a non-video version of this Flashcard? Click here.)

See also: Climate Change in Plain Language

Video magic by Meaghan Robbins.

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Event: Washington’s Fight Against Coal & Oil

Learn more about Washington's frontline fossil fuel fight.
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal & Oil Exports

Join us for a free community forum on the coal and oil industry’s plans to build new dirty energy transport facilities in Washington. This forum will cover Washington’s and Thurston County’s role in holding the Thin Green Line against international fossil fuel trade; explain the costs and consequences of coal and oil transport; and provide opportunities for citizen action.

Event Details

  • Forum: “Running the Risk: Washington’s Fight against Coal Export and Oil Transport”
  • When: Thursday, September 3, 6:30 pm (program begins at 7:00 pm)
  • Where: The Olympia Center, 222 Columbia St NW (map)
  • Tickets: This event is free and open to the public, but please RSVP.

Read more »

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Five Things Northwest States Should Know about the Federal Clean Power Plan

Obama puts states on a path to pricing pollution.
This post is 45 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

Last fall I described how President Obama’s draft federal Clean Power Plan (CPP) gave Oregon and Washington a chance to leap into a clean energy future. The final federal rule is out, and it clears and fortifies the path for states. The CPP is a carbon-pricing powerhouse: it gives Oregon and Washington’s governors the opportunity to use a price on carbon pollution—either alone or in combination with other states—to comply with the federal law.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan is the progeny of the US Supreme Court’s 2007 holding that the Clean Air Act covers greenhouse gas emissions. The Clean Air Act uses a “cooperative federalism” approach; EPA sets goals for each state. It then lets the states write their own implementation plans for reaching their goal. States must submit plans by September 2016 and comply with the final goal by 2030. Last year’s draft plan aimed to cut nationwide power sector emissions about 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, but the final plan estimates it will get down to 32 percent below 2005 levels. While cutting global warming pollution, the CPP will also avoid 90,000 asthma attacks and 3,600 premature deaths.

.@BarackObama’s #CPP: Emissions down 32%, 90K fewer asthma attacks.Tweet this

1. The CPP encourages state and regional cap-and-trade programs.

The CPP is more than 1,500 pages long, but the bottom line is: it steers states towards creating interoperable cap-and-trade programs. Read more »


What Montana’s Tongue River Railroad Means for Coal Export

A coal market analysis riddled with factual errors boosts the industry’s export schemes.
This post is 41 in the series: Coal Exports: Caveat Investor

A new railroad proposed in Montana offers a sneak preview of what’s to come for the Northwest coal export debate. The news is troubling.

The little-known Tongue River Railroad project would, if approved, build a new line through eastern Montana’s rangeland to allow development of a new export mine for Arch Coal. It has big implications for the proposed coal terminals in Washington: without the railroad and the mine it would support, the already troubled Millennium Bulk Terminals project at Longview may die. On the other hand, an industry-friendly permit review that ignores basic facts and blithely waves away objections would tip the scales in favor of coal.

And that’s exactly what we seem to be seeing in the recent draft analysis of the Tongue River Railroad. Read more »

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How Tesoro’s Petrochem Plans May Threaten Anacortes & the Salish Sea

The real hazards of xylene.

In July 2014, Tesoro Corporation announced plans to build a xylene extraction facility at the site of its existing oil refinery in Anacortes, Washington. The $400 million facility would be capable of producing 15,000 barrels per day for export to Asia in oceangoing vessels.

Yet xylene is a little-known chemical, and it’s worth asking: what is the risk of xylene to Northwest communities?

In case you skipped Sightline’s 101 course, xylene is liquid petrochemical distilled primarily from partly refined crude oil. It’s a starting point for plastic bottles, polyester fibers, food packaging, paint, rubber, and more. But before xylene becomes a Coke bottle with your name on it, it would start as crude oil that is partially refined into “reformate.” (Reformate is easier to produce from light oils, such as the Bakken shale oil delivered by train to the site.)

Then it would undergo an extraction process at the Puget Sound refinery, which involves manufacturing, transferring, treating, and storing the chemical. Finally, every couple of weeks, the refinery operators would load a tanker vessel at Tesoro’s Anacortes wharf and ship it across the Pacific.

All by a company with a less than spectacular safety record. If any of the operations resulted in a spill, the xylene could pose meaningful risks both to the residents of nearby Anacortes and to the non-human inhabitants of the Salish Sea. Even without incident, emissions of xylene could contribute to air pollution and illness. Read more »


Weekend Reading 8/21/15

Why Americans are ashamed, the neoliberalization of higher education, Latino voices on climate change, and more.
This post is 216 in the series: Weekend Reading
Original illustration by Nina Montenegro of


Sometimes I read things that are going around Facebook. They almost always make me sad, like Cecil the Lion. So I write about it, and feel a tiny bit better.

What’s the best thing a doctor can prescribe to a poor person? Money. That’s why these physicians support a Basic Income Guarantee.

Imagine a world where people with average middle-class jobs could afford to have kids, have health care, take 10 months off work to be with your babies, then put them in good quality day care, and not worry every minute about falling behind and slipping into poverty. Oh, wait—that’s how most civilized countries work. Just not the US. But it sounds so so so nice!

Speaking of the challenges of living in America… So many Americans are ashamed. The economy isn’t creating jobs for them, yet the culture still tells them they are worthless without a job. There is no way for them to support their family without a job, so they are ashamed. And angry. And they want to vote for Trump. Because Trump has no shame and he tells them he can fix it for them, give them back their jobs and their dignity. By firing all the Mexicans. And putting all the women in their place. Read more »

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3 Possible Outcomes of Governor Inslee’s Carbon Order

A rulemaking could give Washington a head start on action.
This post is 44 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee, stymied by Republican opposition to putting a price on carbon, is flexing his executive power. Like President Obama using his Clean Air Act authority to order the Environmental Protection Agency to formulate the federal Clean Power Plan, Governor Inslee has invoked his authority under existing pollution laws. Last year, a group of Washington young people petitioned the Department of Ecology to use its existing authority to take action on climate change.

In July, Governor Inslee ordered the Washington Department of Ecology to make a plan that will cut climate pollution down to the limits in state law.

Ecology’s rulemaking could:

1. Create a plan and some policies to start Washington down the right path until the legislature takes action.

By using his executive authority, Governor Inslee might be able to keep Washington on track, despite this year’s legislative gridlock.

Comprehensive climate action requires comprehensive public process. California took two years of public rulemaking to develop its “Scoping Plan”—the blueprint for the state’s climate action. Governor Inslee directed Ecology to conduct a one-year rulemaking where “all stakeholders will have ample opportunity to express their ideas, options and concerns as the rule development process unfolds.” Ecology will “assess which sectors and facilities should be covered” and will offer a “variety of compliance options” for those facilities and sectors.

This rulemaking could result in a sweeping state plan describing policies aimed at overcoming market barriers to cutting pollution, policies aimed at sectors that would not likely be included in a cap-and-trade program, and policies aimed at achieving additional benefits, beyond reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Read more »