Indefensible

Posted February 16, 2007 at 5:42pm

Congress has passed legislation requiring lobbyists to report electronically what they spend to influence lawmakers. House Members and candidates, along with House and national party committees, have been required to report contributions and expenditures electronically since 2001 and independent 527 political committees since 2003.

What’s missing here? The Senate. Senators, Senate candidates and Senate campaign committees still report on paper, and the process is so cumbersome and slow that watchdog groups, the media and the public can’t find out who’s giving and who’s getting until weeks after key votes and elections — not within 24 hours, as is the case with the House and others.

The Senate process would be comical if it weren’t so purposefully deceptive. Senate campaigns and committees are fully computerized, but instead of downloading their data to the Federal Election Commission, they print their records out and mail them to the Office of the Secretary of the Senate. That alone wastes several days past the required filing time. Then, the Secretary’s office scans each page back into digital images to be e-mailed to the FEC.

There, the files are downloaded, printed and collated. Last year, the Los Angeles Times reported, Senate Democrats’ reports consumed 5,487 pages and Republican reports, 4,650 pages — nine to 11 hours’ worth of printing time at the FEC.

But wait, we’re not done yet. The back-on-paper files are then couriered to Fredericksburg, Va., where a private contractor, ILM Corp., employs workers to type the information back into a computer — costing taxpayers $250,000 per year. The information is then transmitted electronically back to the FEC for posting on the Internet.

At long last, contribution data is available for study and categorizing on Web sites such as PoliticalMoneyLine and OpenSecrets.org. But it’s weeks late and expenditure data never gets posted.

Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) first introduced legislation to change this ridiculous system in 2003. It didn’t happen, according to Steve Weissman of the Campaign Finance Institute, because now-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blocked it. The Louisville Courier-Journal reported that McConnell argued he didn’t want nosy watchdogs and opponents to be able to type in a search for “Enron” and find out instantly who received contributions from the disgraced energy giant.

Feingold is back again with S. 223, now joined by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) as chief sponsor along with 26 others, including McCain. The bill has been referred to the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, and its chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), has endorsed the bill. Yet no hearing or markup is scheduled.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) says he’s for reform, but when Feingold offered his bill as an amendment to lobbying reform legislation, Reid rejected it as a non-germane “campaign finance reform measure,” even though candidate travel aboard corporate jets was covered in the bill. The only way to prove that Democrats, as well as Republicans, don’t favor perpetuation of the indefensible is to move on this bill, and soon.