FEC Pushes E-Disclosure For Senate

Posted March 25, 2005 at 5:52pm

Members of the Federal Election Commission last week renewed their call for the mandatory electronic filing of Senate campaign finance reports — a reform that watchdog groups say is long overdue.

The recommendation was one of 16 specific suggestions included in the FEC’s annual set of legislative recommendations to Congress. Campaign finance reformers say they hope the FEC’s proposal will reignite a debate on the topic on Capitol Hill.

The Senate’s exemption from the electronic filing of disclosure reports is “totally unjustified,” said Steve Weissman, who has studied the issue closely as policy director of the Campaign Finance Institute.

“Presidential candidates, House candidates, every political action committee and even the Senators’ own leadership PACs have to report electronically” when they raise funds above a certain threshold, Weissman said.

Yet despite efforts by some to bring the Senate in line with the House, which has been using electronic filing for years, the chamber has dragged its feet on the matter.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) introduced legislation in the 108th Congress to require Senate campaigns to file electronically. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) later co-sponsored the bill, and other key lawmakers — including Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and ranking member Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) — also publicly expressed support for the idea.

But in March 2004, Lott told Roll Call that unnamed colleagues opposed the measure and that he did not expect it to “happen right away.” With that, the push lost steam.

Advocates for electronic filing don’t understand the resistance.

Weissman noted that electronic filings can quickly and easily be placed on the Internet, allowing the public to search the data from their home computers just minutes after it is filed with the FEC. He doesn’t understand how any Senator could logically oppose such a reform.

By comparison, Senate candidates’ basic information — which is first filed with the Secretary of the Senate and then forwarded to the FEC — can take days to appear in the watchdog agency’s disclosure system. More detailed information from those reports can sometimes take up to a month, forcing journalists and others who wish to access the information to sift page-by-page through what can sometimes amount to thousands of pages of paper filings.

For instance, the third-quarter reports for the campaigns of then-Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and his opponent, now-Sen. John Thune (R), were well over 3,000 pages long but largely unaccessible to the public at large until after Election Day.

“We are about to come out with a study soon on this … that will show the overwhelming amount of individual contributions that Senators got as far back as July in the last election were not available to citizens in any searchable form before the November elections,” Weissman said.

The FEC’s own observations back up such conclusions.

While electronically filed reports can become available within five minutes — with detailed data available within 24 to 48 hours — a report received through the paper filing system can take up to 48 hours to appear.

“It can take as long as 30 days before some detailed data filed on paper is available in the Commission’s databases,” the agency noted.

And that’s if everything else in the system goes off without a hitch.

Disruptions in the mail delivery process, such as discovery of anthrax in 2001 or ricin in 2004, created even more significant delays in the reporting process. For instance, Senate reports filed via regular mail in 2001 took, in some cases, months to arrive at the Secretary of the Senate’s office, severely delaying their disclosure.

Moreover, a previous 2003 study by CFI concluded that at least $100,000 could be saved each cycle if key-punching and paper filings were eliminated, according to the CFI study.

Beyond that, the FEC’s own legislative proposal points out that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 required certain changes to its own software systems to allow information on campaign receipts and disbursements to be “transmitted immediately” and posted on the FEC’s Web site “immediately upon receipt.”

That’s because BCRA expanded the class of persons required to file electronically by mandating that “each candidate for Federal office (or that candidate’s authorized committee) shall use software that meets the new standards once such software is made available to the candidate.”

“The plain language of this statutory revision does not appear to exempt Senate candidates and their authorized committees from the electronic filing requirements, but it does not specify where the electronic reports must be filed,” the FEC’s proposal noted. “Thus, a plain reading of these new requirements indicates that all Senate candidates and their authorized committees must use software, presumably to file electronically, with the Senate (or with the FEC).”

The legislative recommendations also proposed several other changes to the law to help streamline the FEC’s ability to enforce the nation’s campaign finance laws and flex its investigatory arm.

For instance, the FEC has asked that it be added to the list of federal agencies allowed to issue immunity orders, with the approval of the attorney general, to help compel witnesses in cases to testify.

The FEC noted that in some cases when it is investigating potential campaign finance violations, individuals who’ve been called to testify will refuse to do so on the basis of their privilege against self-incrimination. Giving the FEC the authority to grant limited criminal immunity would “enhance” the FEC’s ability to obtain information in its enforcement cases.

The FEC is also asking Congress to add a provision related to enforcement of the law that would make it a violation for anyone to aid or abet another party in violating campaign finance laws.

Such a change would effectively allow the FEC to go after players who have substantially contributed to a campaign finance violation, but can’t currently be held liable.

Among the other recommendations contained in the FEC’s legislative package are: eliminating coordinated party expenditure limits for Congressional nominees; indexing for inflation the limit on contributions by one authorized committee to another; and ensuring that the biennial contribution limits for individuals contributing to candidates is applied on a two-calendar-year basis, not an election-year basis.

The FEC also urged Congress to increase the retention period for records relating to political committees, from three years after the related report is filed to five years, so that it coincides with the five-year statute of limitations for litigation.

With regard to the “Millionaires’ Amendment,” the FEC has asked lawmakers to eliminate the requirement that candidates disclose on their candidacy statements the amount by which they expect to exceed the personal spending threshold in the law.

A complete description of the FEC’s 2005 legislative recommendations can be viewed at https://www.fec.gov/agenda/2005/mtgdoc05-14.pdf.