Senate Disclosure Faces Scrutiny

Group Urges Chamber to End Paper Campaign Finance Reports

Posted October 27, 2003 at 6:38pm

When it comes to disclosing campaign finances, the Luddite ways of the Senate are keeping voters in the dark and wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars, a watchdog group charged in a new report.

The chamber’s insistence on making Senate candidates file paper campaign finance reports — rather than the electronic filing adopted by House candidates and political action committees — is hampering timely public judgments about Senate candidates and legislative actions, according to a Campaign Finance Institute report.

In addition, although most Senate candidate committees are already employing the same type of software used by House candidates and political action committees, few campaigns will provide electronic versions of the paper reports they file with the Secretary of the Senate, the report found.

Under the new Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, candidates are now required to file reports at least once a quarter, even in the off-year of an election cycle. While House and PAC reports are available in an easily accessible format the moment they are filed, Senate reports take far longer and provide substantially less information about the money flowing into and out of their campaign accounts.

More than 27,000 paper pages were filed by Senate candidates in the second quarter of this year. The reports were mailed to the Secretary of the Senate, where they were individually scanned to create an electronic picture of each individual page. The Secretary of the Senate’s office then transmitted the scanned pages to the Federal Election Commission, which then printed each of the 27,000 pages all over again, not once but twice, according to Bob Biersack, an FEC spokesman.

One set was placed in the FEC’s public disclosure office, while the other set was sent to an outside key-punching contractor in Fredericksburg, Va., where the information is retyped into a format that can be easily searched and accessed through the FEC database. But it costs 24 cents to key-punch each individual entry listing a contribution and there were more than 336,500 transactions in the 2001-02 election cycle, Biersack said.

Nearly $100,000 could be saved each cycle if the key-punching and paper filings were eliminated, according to the CFI study.

The time from which the campaign reports are due to be filed to the point where a citizen can use the information can take nearly a month, the study said.

“As a result, while the Senate takes crucial votes in the next days and weeks on such issues as Iraq, energy and Medicare, voters will remain in the dark on key aspects of Senate campaign finance for as long as a month or more,” the CFI study said. “The problem will get even worse a year from now. When voters go to the polls in November 2004, they will have relatively little information from Senate candidate and party disclosure pre-election reports covering the critical fundraising months from July through October.

“From the voter’s perspective, most of these reports might just as well not exist.”

While the current law requires paper copies to be filed with the Secretary of the Senate, no rule prevents a simultaneous electronic filing by candidates with the FEC. But even if candidate wanted to send his or her reports with a click of the mouse, it isn’t easy.

The FEC computer system actually blocks the filing of Senate committee reports, according to an attorney who represents GOP candidates who would like to file electronically.

Biersack acknowledged that the FEC software blocks Senate committees from filing electronically the same way that House candidates and PACs file. He said that Senate candidates who want to file unofficial electronic versions of their reports may do so but they have to file to a different address than the one used by regular House candidates and PACs. The FEC Web site includes a separate section for unofficial Senate reports, and as of Monday it listed just nine committees filing reports. Of those, just four committees had current reports from this cycle, and the only incumbent among them was Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).