Outrageous

Posted February 10, 2009 at 3:41pm

In this year when “transparency” is all the rage, it would be appropriate for the Senate — at long last — to join the House and every federal political committee in filing campaign finance reports electronically.

Fundraising and spending reports for the end of 2008 were due on Jan. 31. Reports for House Members and candidates and the Republican and Democratic parties and their campaign committees all were instantly available to the media, watchdog groups and the public on the Federal Election Commission’s Web site.

But Senate reports take weeks from the filing deadline to make it into the public realm. And when they are made available, it’s at the conclusion of a circuitous process that costs taxpayers an estimated $250,000 a year that could be far better spent elsewhere — almost anywhere else — or simply used to narrow the federal deficit.

Moreover, because of the expense, the FEC does not electronically post Senate campaign expenditures, only contributions — a gap that Steve Weissman of the Campaign Finance Institute correctly calls “outrageous.”

Senators use FEC-approved software to compile their reports, but then they snail-mail paper copies to the office of the Secretary of the Senate, which then scans some 27,000 pages and sends them electronically to the FEC.

They can be then combed through page by page on the FEC Web site, but not digitally manipulated or matched. The FEC hires a contractor to key the data into digital form. Only then, a month or more after the filing deadline, can the data be searched and connections made, if any, between money collected and votes or positions Senators or their opponents have taken.

But it still takes page-by-page searching to review candidates’ spending — to determine, for instance, if candidates’ relatives are on the campaign payroll.

All this ridiculous complexity is necessary because in 2000 the Senate exempted itself from an electronic filing requirement written into the FEC’s appropriation. Legislation to correct the situation has been regularly introduced by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), and it’s regularly had dozens of co-sponsors.

But it’s never passed. Change was resisted at first by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who wanted to maintain a fusty Senate “prerogative,” and then by various Republican Senators who wanted to attach amendments that amounted to “poison pills.”

Last year, the Senate Rules and Administration Committee approved the bill for floor action, but it was blocked by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) who sought to add a provision requiring disclosure of the donors to any organization filing ethics complaints against a Senator. The bill never was voted on.

It’s time for this nonsense to come to an end. Feingold is planning to re-introduce the measure soon. It ought to be processed promptly by the Rules Committee, now chaired by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and pushed to the floor for passage as early in the year as possible so if it’s subject to more shenanigans, they can be exposed and resolved.