Politics

Kicking and Screaming Toward Senate 2.0

Chamber’s campaign finance report filing could finally move online

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had been tight-lipped about a proposal that would force senators to file campaign finance reports electronically. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate, a legislative body grappling with tricky technology issues such as online privacy and digital security, remains in the dark age of analog when it comes to its own political disclosure.

That could change this year. Or not.

Senators have attached to an appropriations bill an update in the way candidates file their campaign finance reports. Instead of mailing or hand delivering paper copies to the secretary of the Senate, candidates would have to file electronically with the Federal Election Commission — just as House and presidential campaigns have been required to do since 2001.

The current system costs taxpayers more money and results in a lag, of days or even weeks, in public disclosure while the FEC digitizes the data.

Additionally, it makes the Senate look like a chamber of Luddites, akin to when the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens proclaimed in 2006 that the internet was comprised of “a series of tubes.”

Can senators today make a convincing case that they sufficiently understand social media and online politicking when they continue to file their campaign finance reports like it’s 1994?

Senators often appeared out of touch earlier this year when questioning Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg about the company’s data breaches and possible foreign influences on the platform during the 2016 campaigns.

“The Senate should be ashamed of itself,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of the campaign overhaul group Issue One and a longtime advocate for e-filing. “They did not equip themselves well at the Facebook hearing from a public policy viewpoint. E-filing is yet another example of how they look out of step.”

The Senate, of course, takes pride in its institutionalism, steeped in history and long-held, arcane procedures. But no one can credibly articulate an argument that filing the old-fashioned way is part of that tradition.

Ultimately, the campaign finance data does make it online — but taxpayers foot the FEC’s estimated $898,000 bill to digitize the information, according to a recent commission report.

The FEC also concludes that “a Senate campaign filing often consists of thousands of pages, and data from a vast majority of filings take five to ten days to be integrated into the Commission’s searchable databases.”

That wait means the public, reporters and opposition researchers face an unnecessary delay in sifting through these Senate campaign finance records, perhaps offering a glimpse of one of the only reasons the chamber has clung to the current system.

“Any amount of time that you can buy yourself is seen as an advantage, politically,” said Michael Beckel, an e-filing advocate who works with McGehee.

A bipartisan majority of senators supported the change Monday, passing the appropriations bill in an 86-5 vote. And 18 senators, mostly Democrats, this year voluntarily filed online disclosures with the FEC, even though they are still required to tender the actual paper version to the secretary of the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a well-known opponent of campaign finance regulations, has in the past held up the change, using it as a bargaining chip in debates on other matters, said McGehee and others who have worked on the issue.

Daniel Schuman, policy director at the liberal group Demand Progress, said it amounts to “legislative hostage taking.”

Last year, the same legislative branch appropriations bill also included the change. But e-filing did not make it into the year-end spending package.

Trying to nudge the tradition-minded Senate to change through a spending bill adds an interesting wrinkle for some longtime proponents who lobby for rider-free bills and say, quietly, they don’t like the process of moving the change in this way. But most who favor the policy change say e-filing is a well-vetted measure that should pass any way it can.

Will this year be any different than last year — or the past two decades?

Even the oldest senators are getting with the times by filing campaign reports electronically, including 80-year-old Thad Cochran, who did so earlier this year before he resigned.

“There’s going to be a tipping point where it actually becomes more of a hassle for candidates not to file electronically,” McGehee predicted. “Only time will tell if we’ve hit that tipping point now.”

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