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Checking Influence Review – See How Your Spending is Wielding Political Influence

By David Bakke

When it comes to deciding exactly where we spend our money, there are two types of people: those who care about the political affiliations of companies they do business with, and those who don’t.

If you’re in the first category and want to be aware of the political activity of various companies, there’s a great new tool that can help you easily find this information. And even if you didn’t care to know previously, try it out. It could give you some interesting insights that I’m sure you didn’t know about before.

The tool is called Checking Influence, and is affiliated with the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that seeks to “use the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency.” Checking Influence provides you with detailed information about the political tendencies of the companies you give your hard-earned money. It tells you everything from supported politicians and lobbying issues to contributions and federal spending.

Checking Influence enables us, as consumers, to see how politics flows from Washington right into our wallets, often without us even knowing it. The Sunlight Foundation created this tool to help Americans be more informed consumers and citizens. So, as you knock out your shopping list at your favorite retailers or online shopping sites, use Checking Influence when you’re done to figure out where your money is really going. You may be surprised by what you find.

How It Works

Checking Influence is a bookmarklet, a small application that attaches to your web browser and performs functions, usually involving data extraction. This particular bookmarklet is very simple and easy to use.

  1. First, add the Checking Influence bookmarklet to your browser’s bookmarks or favorites bar. You can do this by navigating here and dragging and dropping the blue “add me to your bookmarks bar” button to the appropriate section in your browser.
  2. Once you’ve done that, go to any page that shows your recent spending transactions. Typically, this would be one of your online credit card statements or your checking account statement (e.g. Chase Freedom credit card statement, Ally Bank account login, Mint.com, etc).
  3. Once there, click on the Checking Influence button you added to your browser’s toolbar in step 1. All of the political contributions and lobbying information will appear for most of the places where you recently spent your money.

If you’re worried about security, the site employs the same SSL encryption technology that banks use to protect your information. You can also get the same information on specific companies or politicians by manually entering them into the Influence Explorer.

Examples

Seeing some relevant examples will likely help you to see exactly how Checking Influence works. As I mentioned, the tool provides information related to the issues companies have lobbied for and the politicians that they support. For instance, if you do your grocery shopping at Publix, the tool will tell you all the industries that they have lobbied. If you buy your gas at BP, then it will tell you whether or not they only support Democratic politicians. Regardless of how politically involved you consider yourself, this is powerful information.

Here’s a screenshot of what I found from Checking Influence for Barnes & Noble, Microsoft and Walmart:

checking influence screenshot

Some of the additional interesting tidbits I found based on my spending:

  • Amazon – seems to support only Democrats.
  • Shell – has lobbied Federal Budget and Appropriations politicians.
  • Office Depot – seems to support strictly Republican office holders.
  • Kroger’s – has lobbied the tobacco industry.
  • TD Ameritrade – seems to support only Republicans.

Checking Influence also shows a list of the specific politicians that a corporation has supported as well as party affiliations. By clicking on each of the names, you can learn more about the politician and get a breakdown of the contributions that he or she receives. Below is an example for Google.

google political contributions

Finally, when you use this tool on one of your account pages listing your spending transactions, Checking Influence gives you a breakdown of the total party donations weighted by your purchase amounts. Below is an example:

I am not the most politically active person in the world, but I was shocked to find out that the majority of my purchases went to companies that don’t even support the political party that I consider myself to be a part of! If that’s not motivation enough to at least take a look at this tool, then I don’t know what is.

Final Word

To sum up, I think that the Checking Influence tool would be a benefit to all of us as American consumers. Deciding where to spend our money can go a lot further in fostering change in Washington than all of our whining around the water cooler.

Personally, I am as vocal as they come about the government’s problems, but if through my purchases I am supporting some of the people I hold most accountable for the nation’s ills, then what good is my complaining? If I did more talking with my wallet (i.e. my buying choices) then maybe there’d be a better chance of seeing some real change in this country. I am just one person, but what would happen if a hundred more people started caring about the lobbying and political contributions of these retailers? How about one thousand or even ten thousand? You get the idea.

Be sure to take a look at Checking Influence if you haven’t already. You might be surprised to find where your spending dollars are going. And with all this information now at your fingertips, you might think twice before returning to your favorite retailers.

What are your thoughts about the political affiliations of corporations in America? Feel free to share your opinions here.

David Bakke
David started his own personal finance blog, YourFinances101, in June of 2009 and published his first book on ways to save more and spend less called "Don't Be A Mule..." Since then he has been a regular contributor for Money Crashers. He lives just outside Atlanta, GA and most all of his free time is taken up by his amazing three year old son, Nicholas.

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