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Senate Rules Keep Donors Under Wraps

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Voters hoping to learn who’s contributing to their lawmakers this election season will shortly find a gaping hole: Due to antiquated rules requiring senators to file campaign disclosures on paper, the records of upper chamber members take weeks to process. The procedure means that donations made closest to November’s elections will go largely unseen until well after the last vote has been cast.

For campaign reform advocates, the set-up is maddening.

“It’s absolutely unjustifiable,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign watchdog group. “It really just boggles the mind.”

Congress_5037.jpg
Congress_5037.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

“Especially in this election cycle,” said Josh Zaharoff, assistant director of campaign-finance reform at Common Cause, “which will be the most expensive election in history, we ought to be able to see where this money’s coming from, and we should know before the election’s over.”

Under current rules, Senate offices must print out their campaign finance reports, which lawmakers store electronically, and mail them to the Sec. of the Senate on Capitol Hill (the reports must be postmarked, though not received, by the specific deadline). The Sec. of the Senate then scans them and emails the digitalized versions to the Federal Election Commission. The FEC posts the non-searchable images online, but also prints another set of hard copies, which are driven to the offices of a government contractor in Virginia; the contractor then keys the information back into the computer in its final, searchable form.

The process takes between four to six weeks, experts say, and costs taxpayers roughly $250,000 per year.

“Of course, during this convoluted period, there is no transparency,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Cal.) said on the chamber floor last September. “Therefore, the reports are not available for public scrutiny.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. The House moved to mandatory electronic filing at the start of 2001. The Senate was exempt at the time (and remains so) because that law applied only to those filing directly with the FEC. (The Senate, recall, files first to the Sec. of the Senate.) Searchable House records are available online almost immediately after members file.

The upper chamber, however, is no swift moving body. Though a Senate bill would modernize the chamber’s disclosure process, GOP opposition has stalled it for more than a year. Most recently, the delay was caused by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who objected to the bill when he wasn’t permitted to attach a controversial amendment. Ensign’s addition would have required groups that file complaints with the Senate Ethics Committee to disclose their donors — something charities and other non-profits are often loathe to do.

“It’s basically a poison pill amendment,” said Craig Holman, a campaign finance lobbyist at Public Citizen.

Supporters of the move to electronic filing have long wondered why any lawmaker would oppose the shift. After all, the bill doesn’t demand fuller disclosure, simply speeds up the process. Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit campaign-finance reform advocate, said that, in tight election years, that could be reason enough. “A lot of times in politics, timing is everything,” McGehee said. “This is about control of information.”

Testifying about the bill before a Senate panel last year, Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said “there are no credible arguments” for the Senate to continue with its traditional filing process. “Whatever the rationale for the Senate exemption (institutional pride?), it has produced a set of ridiculous practices that serve no legitimate public or private interest,” Mann said in his written statement.

An Ensign spokesman did not return calls and emails.

Others point out that the opposition extends beyond Ensign. McGehee said there’s been a history of GOP resistance to the transparency bill. “It’s pretty clear that the Republican leadership wants to ensure that this never happens,” she said.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), has 44 co-sponsors, including 17 Republicans.

Several reports from the Campaign Finance Institute, a non-profit research group, reveal the practical effects of keeping the status quo. In 2006, for example, voters in six of the 10 tightest Senate races had no access to third-quarter contributions — those donated in July, August and September — a week before the election. In 2004, 85 percent of third-quarter contributions were unavailable to voters in all Senate races, CFI found.

With just a few weeks left on this year’s legislative calendar, many campaign finance reformers aren’t putting much hope in Senate leaders to take up the Feingold bill before 2009. Yet, that hasn’t stopped some from lobbying for it.

Holman said that Public Citizen, along with the Sunlight Foundation, is launching a grass-roots effort next week hoping to pressure the Senate to take up the bill in September. Central to that effort will be a Web site allowing public users to share their thoughts on the issue.

Regan LaChapelle, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said that no scheduling decisions have been made for September.

Meanwhile, observers can continue to scratch their heads over why the upper chamber can’t evolve into the 21st Century.

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