By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Monday, September 18, 2006
In the next few weeks leading up to Election Day, money will pour into candidates' coffers and voters will be able to see which lobby groups are trying hardest to buy their lawmakers' favor.
Except if the candidates happen to be running for Senate.
In one of the most controversial quirks in election law, candidates for Senate are not required to file their campaign-finance reports electronically. That means voters can't effectively find out how much and from whom their would-be senators have collected money until long after the election -- too late for them to act.
A growing number of senators and public-interest groups have been working for years to change this rule. They contend that it's only reasonable that senators should be required to file their disclosures electronically -- just as candidates for the House and the presidency do. In that way voters can easily see within 24 hours via the Internet what the candidates are spending and from whom they are getting their funds.
As it is, almost all senators and Senate candidates deliver their reports on paper (even though those reports are written on computers). The paper filings are laboriously scanned and then key-punched into an electronic system, a procedure that often takes six weeks to finish and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.
After the reports are submitted to the Secretary of the Senate (often well past published deadlines), they are placed onto the Federal Election Commission's Web site in a page-by-page format. The listings are not searchable, which makes it almost impossible for anyone to glean useful information. Think of the process like rummaging through thousands of disorderly papers in a very large box.
The net result: Senators have insolated themselves from criticism that stems from their very important, end-of-campaign donations because they have denied voters accessible information when it would be most useful.
"The Senate has repeatedly voted to mandate timely electronic disclosure and Web searchability for House and presidential candidates, non-Senate party committees, political action committees, Section 527 political organizations and lobbyists," said Stephen R. Weissman, associate director for policy at the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. "The level of hypocrisy is unbelievable, and the American voter pays a heavy price."
The Senate's Committee on Rules and Administration is in charge of deciding what to do about the issue and, despite pleas from a bipartisan group of senators, has done nothing. I tried many times in the past two weeks to get the spokeswoman for the committee's chairman, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), to return my phone calls and to answer questions on the topic. But she did not respond.
In fact, it's hard to find anyone who will defend the current law. On the other hand, lots of folks have problems with the situation and are eager to say so, including the Federal Election Commission. The FEC has recommended that the Senate move to electronic filing on "multiple occasions," said Michael E. Toner, the FEC's chairman. "Senate campaigns are the only ones that don't file electronically," he said, "even though there's widespread agreement that electronic filing works well and allows data to be publicly available within hours of it being received."
Senators from both sides of the aisle agree. Eleven senators (seven Republicans and four Democrats) sent a letter to Lott in July urging him to approve legislation that would mandate electronic filing. "We believe there is consensus among our colleagues to move to electronic filing and online disclosure of campaign finance reports," said the letter, which was primarily authored by the political odd couple of Sens. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.). "The next step in this process is Senate action."
Voters surely would have been better off if such a law been in effect in prior elections. When the polls opened in November 2004, voters were in the dark about $53 million in individual Senate contributions of $200 or more dating all the way back to July, according to the Campaign Finance Institute. If you were a South Dakotan choosing between Tom Daschle, the Senate's Democratic leader, and Republican challenger John Thune, you were almost certainly unaware of large donations totaling $24,000 from employees of the mortgage finance giant Fannie Mae to Daschle, as well as large contributions to Thune from employees of Coastview Capital and L.E. Lehrman and Co. ($12,000 each).
The only way you might have known about these and other major gifts would have been to leaf through the candidates' reports, each of which was about 3,400 pages long. North Carolina voters had it slightly better, but not much; the reports of major party candidates there were only 1,100 pages long.
The House started to make its disclosures simpler to obtain more than a decade ago. In 1995, the House began filing its reports directly with the FEC, and two years later it allowed the reports to be filed electronically. But the Senate took neither step, standing firm on the principle that it should control its own reports, a notion that one Senate aide summarized as "senatorial prerogative."
How this makes sense in an information age is hard to fathom.Good Deed Bounty Hunting
The Sunlight Network is offering cash to citizens who do what it thinks is the "right thing." The nonprofit group is advertising that it will pay up to a total of $680,000 to people who persuade members of Congress, or prospective members, to agree to put their daily schedules on the Internet for all to see.
The Sunlight Network, which is affiliated with the Sunlight Foundation, thinks that it is well past time that voters knew who their elected representatives were meeting with and how often. But there's no way to find out short of publishing their schedules, something that is not required and, in fact, is never done.
So the network says that it will pay a cash fee of $1,000 to anyone who persuades a lawmaker to sign an agreement to disclose his or her daily calendar, and $250 to anyone who gets a candidate for Congress to do the same. The Sunlight Foundation is underwritten by securities lawyer and entrepreneur Michael R. Klein and headed by Ellen S. Miller, a longtime advocate for disclosure of campaign finances.
The organization takes its name from a quotation by former Supreme Court justice Louis D. Brandeis: "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." Its goal is to shed light, or public attention, on candidates' big donors and lobbying contacts as a way to change government. But so far no one has taken advantage of this latest gimmick.
Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. His e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org. He will be online to discuss Senate disclosures, "Mortgage Moms" and lobbyist-bashing on the campaign trail at 3 p.m. today at washingtonpost.com.