Report Faults Senate for Antiquated Disclosure

Posted April 4, 2005 at 6:44pm

As late as three days before the 2004 election, voters were largely “in the dark” about origins of millions of dollars being spent on key Senate contests, according to a just-released study by the Campaign Finance Institute.

CFI’s report, which was written to build a case for mandating electronic filing for Senate campaigns, noted that within 24 hours after the Oct. 15, 2004, deadline for third-quarter filings with the Federal Election Commission, the public could easily comb through and download data for House and presidential candidates, as well as figures for most party committees and political action committees.

But as late as Oct. 30, “the public was unable to benefit from similar searches for 85 percent of the $43.5 million in individual contributions to Senate candidates,” wrote researchers with CFI, a nonprofit group affiliated with George Washington University that studies campaign finance issues.

The situation was particularly bleak in high-profile races in states such as South Dakota, North Carolina and Kentucky, where hard-fought contests drew millions of dollars in donations.

Between Oct. 25 and Oct. 30, no electronically searchable data for the third-quarter reporting period was available for the South Dakota campaigns of then-Sen. Tom Daschle (D) and former Rep. John Thune (R), or for the Kentucky contest pitting Daniel Mongiardo (D) against Sen. Jim Bunning (R). Or in North Carolina, where Erskine Bowles (D) took on, but lost to, now-Sen. Richard Burr (R).

“The only way a citizen, journalists or watchdog groups could discover who all the donors in South Dakota were and how much they gave, as well as what the candidates did with their money, was to go to the FEC Web site and proceed manually — page by page — through the 3,382-page report on contributions and expenditures filed by Senator Daschle and the 3,495-page report filed by former Representative Thune,” the study found.

Because Senate party committees are also exempt from electronic filing requirements, no information regarding the $5.9 million in itemized contributions made to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee in September 2004 was available on Election Day.

While other types of campaigns have been filing electronic reports for years, Senators have resisted the move.

Instead, Senate candidates mail their paper reports to the Secretary of the Senate, who in turn transfers with copies of the reports, within 48 hours, to the FEC.

However, with Senate reports needing only to be postmarked by Oct. 15 if they are sent via registered or certified mail, some filings can take another four to five days to arrive on Capitol Hill. While 22 reports, according to CFI’s count, were received by the Oct. 15 deadline, another 41 did not arrive until Oct. 19 and 20.

Once they are transferred to the FEC, the reports fall into the hands of FEC contractors who are tasked with keying in specific receipt and expenditure data, adding even more time to the process before the vital information can be made computer-searchable.

In an interview, Carol Darr, director of George Washington University’s Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet, lambasted the Senate for limiting the availability of its reports.

“It is a deliberate method of impeding accessible and timely disclosure of their contributions and expenditures,” Darr said.

According to CFI’s survey, other “poorly disclosed competitive contests” included the Alaska race between Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) and ex-Gov. Tony Knowles (D) and the Colorado contest between former state Attorney General Ken Salazar (D) and beer magnate Peter Coors (R).

Only 24 percent of Knowles’ contributions and 37 percent of Murkowski’s donations were computer searchable, according to the institute. In the Salazar-Coors race, the amounts were 12 percent and 25 percent, respectively.

By Halloween, just two days before the election, the FEC Web site was showing “keyed in” electronic data for slightly more than half of all the individual contributions to Senate candidates.

CFI’s report was released a little more than a week after the Federal Election Commission suggested that Congress require the electronic filing of Senate reports in its annual package of “legislative recommendations.”

“Anything they can do to computerize more stuff is great,” said Kent Cooper, who co-owns PoliticalMoneyLine, an online service for tracking and analyzing FEC and lobbying information. “Anything that helps bring the Senate into the modern age and moves data to an electronic form is a plus for public disclosure.”

Some prominent Senators have also shown support for such a change.

In the 108th Congress, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) sponsored a bill to mandate electronic filing for the chamber, and Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has expressed support for the move.

CFI and others noted that switching to electronic filing would create few headaches for Senate filers, as most already track their contributions and expenditures with compatible software.

A CFI study in 2003 revealed that 98 of 99 responding Senators and 24 out of 29 challengers in the 2002 cycle already used such software because of its convenience and flexibility.

“Indeed, separate ‘Leadership PACs’ associated with Senators are required to report electronically and do so,” the report noted. “But the public is not allowed to benefit from the Senate candidates’ rampant use of information technology.

“Instead, the candidates are required to print out their electronic campaign reports on paper and mail them in,” the report continued. “This effectively defeats timely Web-based disclosure of both sources and amounts of donations and recipients and amounts of expenditures.”