Follow the money: Tracking trucking’s friends, opponents in Congress

“The more you observe politics, the more you’ve got to admit that each party is worse than the other.” ― Will Rogers

Now that Congress has averted – or at least rescheduled – a couple of crises of their own doing, they can focus on routine things like running the country. And I can get back to an entertaining pastime called “follow the money,” and anybody can play along. Essentially, when an elected official says something that gets your attention, you can reliably check the campaign finance records to find out who’s been putting those words in his mouth.moneybill

I play the game to while away the time during congressional hearings, but you can more conveniently just follow news reports and the occasional juicy Twitter quote.

Most recently, I was entertained by U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat from New York. During a couple of recent hearings by a House transportation committee panel doing a little groundwork for the next highway bill, Nadler was clearly more prepared and more aggressive in his questioning of the invited witnesses.

Yet he always seemed to focus on the same issue, and pushed witnesses to confirm his reasoning. Namely, Nadler argues that trucks don’t pay nearly enough in highway use taxes compared to their impact on the roads they use.

Hmmm. Where does this anti-truck passion come from? A quick trip to a wonderful resource, OpenSecrets.org, and we can find out who’s been paying to play with the congressman’s talking points.

Though it’s a little early in the 2014 campaign calendar, a list of the top industries who give money to Nadler can be found here. And, sure enough, railroads are in his Top 10 (although, to be fair, the contribution hardly matches up with what lawyers and bankers kick in). It’s also easy enough to toggle the campaign cycle to 2012, which reveals roughly the same mix.

In one of the freight panel hearings, another New Yorker, Republican Rep. Richard Hanna, countered Nadler’s bullying of a witness and argued that trucks contribute to the greater good of the economy – and so deserve some leeway on use fees. Another visit to OpenSecrets.org shows that, as might be expected, trucking industry contributions are high on Hanna’s list.

I also ran a check on the panel chairman, Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., a Tennessee Republican. Trucking comes in at No. 2 among his industry contributors. The American Trucking Associations, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and the National Association of Truck Stop Operators are all among his leading contributors. (Click on the links to see how those trucking interests are spending their money, or, rather, whom they hope to influence.)

The problem with my “follow the money” game is that it’s all too easy to get lost in the data. For instance, you can pull up a list of the leading campaign contributors within an industry, such as trucking.

Of course, trucking’s $13 million is only about a quarter of what the railroads contribute ($47 million) and isn’t nearly enough to crack the Top 20 industries, with pharmaceuticals/health products at the top, giving nearly a quarter-billion bucks (in case you were wondering why the fight over healthcare reform has been so ugly).

Anyway, make of this what you will – and feel free to click around. Or bookmark this page and come back now and again as the countdown to a new highway bills continues.