Few issues or policy realms have the power to bring together alliances like those witnessed in the now infamous Citizens United case, which pinned the ACLU, NRA, AFL-CIO, and Chamber of Commerce against an alliance that included the American Independent Business Alliance, the DNC, and Senator John McCain (among others). Even fewer have the ability to kindle bipartisanship and consensus in a political landscape characterized by polarization and gridlock. Yet the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act introduced by Senator Jon Tester earlier this year has indeed managed to receive bipartisan support. The bill would compel Senate candidates to electronically file campaign finance reports along with the other federally registered committees that have been doing so since 2001 (PACs, Parties, and House Members). The bill would save time, tax dollars, and improve disclosure and transparency.
So why do organizations like GovTrack.us, which track the statistical probability of legislation being enacted, give the bill a 10% chance of success?
In 1971 when the FEC Act was originally enacted, the law dictated that Senate candidates file their reports with the Secretary of the Senate who would then forward them to the FEC. All other committees were to report directly to the FEC. In 2001 when the FEC required that almost all committees file their reports electronically, the Senate was exempted from the law and has continued to file on paper ever since.
Why shouldn’t the Senate be allowed to continue filing on paper? There are several reasons why compelling the Senate to file electronically is a common sense law. First, the current procedure is inefficient. The candidate sends their report to the Secretary of the Senate, who then forwards the report to the FEC. The FEC then sends it to a third party firm that re-types the reports, enters them into a database, and sends the information back the FEC. Only then is the information available to the public. By contrast, reports thatare uploaded electronically are instantly available to the public.
Second, the current procedure is costly. The FEC estimates that having the Senate file electronically would save tax-payers just under $500,000 per year. It would undoubtedly save candidates the expense of printing and sending hundreds of pages worth of reports at-least four times a year. It also unnecessarily wastes the time of government employees. Because the Senate reports need to be re-typed, every time a campaign finance analyst finds a potential violation, they must then locate the paper image to ensure it corroborates with the re-typed data. Such a time-consuming, redundant process is obviated by electronically filed reports.
Lastly, it would provide greater transparency. While the FEC pays for the service of re-typing the data, it is entirely for their own review purposes. The formatted data is never made available to the public. Therefore, individuals interested in reviewing Senate reports must scroll through hundreds of pages of text-unsearchable PDF images. For all these reasons, the measure to compel the Senate to file electronically has received widespread support and near consensus among all parties involved.
Why might the bill fail regardless of such widespread support? Those interested in the passage of the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act of 2013 should pay attention to the behavior of Senator Mitch McConnell and his role in the failed Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act of 2007. Senator McConnell first placed an anonymous hold on the bill (when pushed, he later revealed his identity). He then attempted to attach an amendment that would loosen coordinated expenditure laws between parties and candidates. In short, he sought to negotiate for policy reform when the matter at hand concerned procedural reform, which to many, was simply too unreasonable and unequal of an exchange. Observing McConnell’s disposition toward the current bill may provide insight into its chances of ever getting past committee and on to the floor for a vote.
By Erinn Larkin, Compliance Director, PACs and Parties