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Campaign finance disclosures need improvement

Posted: April 15, 2010 | Tags: campaign finance, Federal Election Commission

For those who follow campaign finance, this is one of the big days of the year: First quarter contribution and spending reports are due at the Federal Election Commission, from congressional candidates and most political action committees.

Opponents, political analysts and the press will watch these numbers closely as an indicator of how this fall's mid-term elections might go.

The reports are a celebration of government openness and a comment on the absurdity of the nation's patchwork of campaign disclosure laws and rules. The disclosure system was mostly constructed in the early 1970's shadow of Watergate, before computers took over American life and before anyone had uttered the word "Internet."

I have covered campaign finance issues since 1974, when I wrote a major graduate school paper on how journalists were (not) using the new campaign finance disclosure rules. Later, I managed a now-dormant Web site that made it easier for journalists and others to get FEC data.

To its credit, the FEC has been trying to adapt to the computer age for nearly two decades. But it has found itself hamstrung by out-dated laws and recalcitrant politicians. The result is an uneven landscape that confounds attempts to bring transparency to campaign finance.

Take, for example, the reporting requirements. In election years, candidates are required to report quarterly, which means that it can be up to three months or more before campaign activity is disclosed. (And in odd-numbered years campaigns and PACs are only required to report semi-annually). Of course, it isn't that simple. Candidates also are required to report just before and just after primary elections in their states. When the campaign finance law was passed in 1972, campaigns were much smaller and the pace of elections was much slower. Today, more timely reporting is needed.

Congress and the FEC should require all candidates and committees to report monthly, in both election and non-election years. In the final month of a general election, reports should be filed daily. Given that virtually all candidates use computers to track their finances, this would not be a burden. In fact, the FEC already requires presidential candidates to file monthly reports. Some PACs now report monthly.

These changes would mean everyone would have to go to electronic filing. Shockingly, that is not the case at present.

Under current rules, presidential campaigns, House candidates and PACs file electronically directly with the FEC.

Senate balks at electronic filing

The Senate has steadfastly refused to adopt electronic filing. Instead, Senate candidates send bales of paper reports first to the Secretary of the Senate, who forwards them to the FEC for processing. What does the FEC do with these reports? If you guessed "enter them into computers," you would be correct. In other words, reports that were generated by computers are printed out and then re-digitized. 

It is a nonsensical, expensive and time-wasting effort. And because the electronic reports contain more information (such as the street address of contributors) than the hand-entered Senate reports, the result is less-than-ideal disclosure. In addition, the electronic reports contain data about what candidates are spending, which until now the FEC hasn't been entering for Senate candidates.

Several attempts to get the Senate to accept electronic filing have died without much consideration; a bill filed a year ago by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., is languishing despite FEC support and wide bipartisan co-sponsorship (41 senators have signed on). It hasn't been assigned to a committee and no hearings have been held. It is apparently subject to a Senate "hold" by Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican.

There are numerous other problems with the data the FEC makes available. The biggest is the lack of a unique identifier for individual contributors, making it difficult to accurately track contributions. Much of the "employer/occupation" data is worthless ("retiree" and "homemaker" are the two biggest categories). Fixing these shortcomings would be technically trivial, but politically difficult.

Congress has an opening to address these issues: Earlier this year the Supreme Court decided  in the Citizens United case that corporations and unions can use their own money to directly influence elections. This decision has opened some holes in the disclosure regime that need to be fixed quickly. But it does not appear from the ideas being tossed around about legislation in the wake of Citizens United that any broad-based disclosure reform is on the horizon. So for the current cycle at least, the present system will largely stay in place.

But both government and nonprofit groups have taken steps in just the past few weeks and months to enhance transparency of the data that is available.

FEC making data access easier

To its credit, the FEC hasn't waited for Congress to patch holes in the reporting system. The commission, long one of the most press and public friendly agencies, has digitzed and made campaign finance reports available electronically since the 1991-92 election cycle (and you can download some data going back to 1978). A  cottage industry has grown up around the FEC reports, led by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, which operates 

Until recently, the FEC did little but process the data and make it available. Now, it too has gotten into the game of adding value. From the FEC site you can now search and download data by candidate or House district. The FEC also has added  expenditure information, including data  from Senate races, to data you can download,. It should get high marks for these steps. The agency even has a blog to talk about what it is doing in the data arena.

The Center for Responsive Politics,  Sunlight Foundation and the National Institute on Money and State Politics have created, a one-stop place to do custom searches of federal and state campaign finance data. You also can download data, or even set it up so that the data flows automatically into your own Web site or other applications.


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