Indefensible

Posted October 28, 2003 at 6:00pm

The Founding Fathers designed the Senate to be stodgier than the House, and so it has been, even in modern times. The House let in television cameras seven years ahead of the Senate and was also on the Internet first. The House’s e-mail system is still vastly more efficient than the Senate’s. On one score, though, the Senate’s backwardness isn’t quaint: Its failure to file campaign finance reports electronically violates the principle of timely disclosure. It’s also an inexcusable waste of taxpayers’ money.

The latest deadline for filing quarterly campaign reports was Oct. 15. Those for presidential campaigns, party committees, political action committees and House candidates were all available on the Federal Election Commission’s Web site the same day. Those for Senators and Senate candidates will not be fully available and capable of analysis until at least the middle of November. That’s inconvenient in an off-year. In an election year, it means that voters go to the polls ignorant of the sources of late contributions to Senate campaigns.

This evasion is permissible because, in 2000, the Senate exempted itself from an electronic-filing requirement written into the FEC’s appropriation, and the chamber has not seen fit to correct the situation. As a result, Senators and candidates — even though they use FEC-approved software to compile their own campaign reports — file (by mail) paper copies with the Secretary of the Senate, who then scans the 27,000 pages of reports and sends the electronic files to the FEC.

While those individual pages can be laboriously combed through on the FEC Web site days or weeks after the filing, the agency prints out two copies of every page. One set goes to the FEC’s public disclosure office, while the other is delivered to a Virginia contractor that — for nearly $100,000 per election cycle — hand-keys the data back into an electronic form. Only then, nearly a month after the initial filing, is the data searchable for connections between votes or positions Senators or their opponents have taken and the money they rake in.

As the Campaign Finance Institute noted in a study of the Senate’s indefensible dodge, “the gold standard for contemporary campaign finance disclosure — at both the federal and state levels — is electronic filing.” But when voters go to the polls in 2004, the CFI declared, voters “will have relatively little information from Senate … reports. From the voter’s perspective, most of these reports might just as well not exist.”

During last year’s campaign finance reform debate, both sides paid homage to the principle of disclosure. Opponents, mainly Republicans, actually touted disclosure as a substitute for limits on fundraising and spending. Because the electronic filing exemption was instituted when the GOP controlled the Senate, it would be fitting (and consistent) for Republicans to undo it. It would be even better if leaders of both parties jointly asserted that it is time for this anachronism to go.