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TPM’s Secret Weapon: The ‘Constituent-Reader’

From the start, Talking Points Memo has been fueled by an especially prized journalistic commodity: Informed input from you, the reader.

Over and over again, TPM readers have turned our small website into a coast-to-coast news gathering operation and, occasionally, an accountability project aimed at the halls of power.


The DeLay Rule 

The first real test of this system came with the so-called “DeLay rule.”

In late 2005, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) was serving as the House majority leader when he was indicted on conspiracy charges, the result of a campaign finance investigation that eventually ended in his resignation, conviction and a three-year sentence. (The conviction was ultimately overturned.)

But a few months prior, in November 2004, DeLay had led the effort to change a House Republican Caucus rule that prevented anyone who’d been indicted from holding a party leadership position.

The DeLay rule vote was held behind closed doors, but TPM wanted names. So, at our urging, readers bombarded Republicans with a single question: How did you vote?

An editor’s note on Nov. 19 lays out the state of play: “As you might imagine we’ve got a mound of emails and updates in from readers giving us information on their reps., new news reports, new awkward phone calls with congressional staffers, and so forth.”

The process produced some juicy responses.

Then-House Ethics Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA), who’d received thousands in donations from DeLay’s political action committee, told several readers: “In the American criminal justice system, individuals who are indicted by grand juries are presumed innocent until proven guilty. The previous Republican Conference rule turned this pillar of justice upside down for Members of Congress.”

The Fainthearted Faction

Around the same time as the DeLay rule, reader participation played a central role on a crucial story for TPM: The George W. Bush-era push to privatize Social Security.

Some background: In 2004 and 2005, Bush proposed “reforming” Social Security by transforming it into “voluntary personal retirement accounts” — that is, setting the market loose onto a popular and important government program. The effort was adorned with the typical buzzwords: “Choice,” “ownership,” “responsibility.”

TPM Illustration

TPM added another phrase to the mix: “the Fainthearted Faction,” or those congressional Democrats that openly considered the Republican proposal to do away with Social Security as we knew it.

Those few months, as Bush began his second term, were crucial: As the President went on the road selling his plan, and TPM — with readers’ help — catalogued Democrats’ response.

TPM Illustration

In late January, Josh Marshall laid out the stakes in a blog post: “Will the Fainthearted go fainter still or will they send the president back to Washington with no one else to help him phase out Social Security?”

“It’s in their hands;” he wrote. “So it’s in your hands.”

It didn’t take long: As Bush toured the country pushing privatization and TPM “constituent-readers” (and millions of others) pressed their members of Congress for answers, the Social Security changes grew less and less popular. Democrats won both houses of Congress in 2006, settling the matter.

Years later, readers still remember: In one August 2019 note, an emailer referred to the operation as “your role fifteen years ago as the unofficial Democratic whip.”

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