- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2007

During the early days of the commercialized Internet in the mid-1990s, opponents of the various renditions of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bills, including this page, would marvel at the transparency opportunities offered by the new technology. Why not compel all parties and candidates to reveal in real time through the Internet the sources and amounts of the contributions they receive and dispense, and invite citizens, the media and watchdog groups to peruse and publicize this data? The Senate, especially, should answer the question.

We have not yet reached this perfect state of nearly instantaneous maximum transparency, whose benefits even in the more restrictive world of McCain-Feingold would still be quite substantial. On the other hand, many political institutions have already made significant progress exploiting the opportunities offered by the Internet. Political parties, presidential candidates, House candidates and political action committees routinely file their campaign-finance disclosure reports electronically with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) on the date they are due. Recall the instant and thorough analyses that immediately followed the April 15 deadline for electronic filings of first-quarter contributions received by the presidential candidates. We learned which zip codes provided the largest stashes for Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton and how much of Mrs. Clinton’s money had to be set aside for a general election campaign. As Election Day 2008 approaches, the timeliness of such information is all the more valuable.

In this era of accelerating technology and expandable transparency, the Senate irresponsibly insists on miring itself in the technology of the 1980s. Since the mid-1990s, the Senate’s campaign-finance disclosure policies have been confined to the pre-Internet era. To this day, Senate rules require challengers and incumbents to submit their campaign-finance reports on paper — even though nearly all campaigns use computer databases to track their contributions — with taxpayer-financed software — and even though the ultimate goal is for the FEC to publish these reports on computer databases.

In an antiquated process, Senate candidates print their computerized finance reports on paper and then deliver them, by hand or snail mail, to the Senate office of public records, where the paper records are then scanned into computer files for electronic transmission to the FEC. The FEC, which has strongly, but futilely, encouraged the Senate to update its disclosure process, then prints these records on paper before shipping them out to Virginia, where they are keypunched into electronic databases (at a taxpayer cost of $250,000 per year). All of this utterly unnecessary makework takes weeks and months, delaying the release of timely information to taxpayers. Last year, the watchdog group Campaign Finance Institute found that contributions received by candidates five months earlier still were not available online a week before the Nov. 6, 2006, elections for six of the 10 most competitive Senate races.

The Senate needs to enter the 21st century.

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