The transparency zeal that has gripped some Washington politicians in recent years has yet to engulf the Senate’s campaign funding disclosure process, and the delinquency is to the detriment of the election process.
Opening up the government to greater public scrutiny has yet to apply to most Senate candidates. Few have voluntarily joined their House counterparts, presidential candidates and even most state-level public office-seekers, who are required by statute to electronically file their campaign finance information. Instead, most incumbents and challengers still, as allowed by Senate regulations, use 1970s-era paper filings to submit their campaign finance reports to the Federal Election Commission.
The irony is that such data are mostly tracked electronically and generated on computers before being printed out to submit to the FEC.
This is a horribly expensive and inefficient effort, a fact recognized by the senators who take it upon themselves to buck the system and file electronically. Most importantly, the paper filings limit the public’s ability to see such data before they vote and prevent the media from serving its all-important role as a check on political corruption in a timely manner.
The paper-based filing means that - unlike other campaigns for federal office, where data are available and searchable online soon after the regular quarterly filing deadline - Senate finance data are delayed because of the lengthened processing time. The delay in posting the information on the Internet can be months … which is just fine with some Senate campaigns.
There are myriad problems with the campaign finance laws, including loopholes that allow politicians and advocacy groups to game the system and unconstitutional limits to advocacy that the Supreme Court currently is reviewing. But the disclosure laws give an invaluable view into who is lining campaign coffers, albeit that can be somewhat manipulated by campaigns and congressional offices.
All the retyping of information into the FEC database by contractors also costs around $250,000 annually. Electronic filling is no more costly and would remove this waste of taxpayer dollars along with printing costs for Senate offices.
Sen. Russell Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, has once again reintroduced legislation requiring electronic fillings by senators. Such efforts over the last six years have never reached the Senate floor. The bill has 32 co-sponsors, including conservative Thad Cochran, Mississippi Republican. This is not a partisan or ideological issue. But John Ensign, Nevada Republican, has led the strongest public effort in recent years to kill the move by insisting on the addition of a poison pill amendment requiring groups filing ethics complaints against senators to disclose their donors. While a worthwhile effort, Mr. Ensign’s amendment is best left to other legislation. A similar effort is said to be contemplated by Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, in this session.
The Senate moves slowly, a fact inherent in the deliberative nature of its design and further enhanced by the body’s rules. But that does not mean those same rules should be used to avoid inconvenient scrutiny.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is said to be looking to bring the measure to the floor without additions, an unlikely event. In the absence of that move, Mr. Reid should put senators on the record with a vote. If senators from either party have any honest interest in being good stewards of the public trust, they will not continue accepting efforts to protect themselves from timely public attention.