Senate hides financials behind a wall of paper

Despite pressure for electronic filings, Senate reporting remains paper-bound. When data is released online, after elections, it's cumbersome and unsearchable.

So just what is the Senate afraid of voters seeing about their campaign filings? While campaign contributions are available to the public for just about every other office, the Senate has managed to keep itself in a netherworld where campaign reports are filed on paper.

The Washington Post's Jeffrey Birnbaum reports: "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."

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.

But that might be changing. A movement to bring the Senate into the 1980s is gathering steam, Birnbaum says.

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."

The imperative for transparency is all the more plain since political corruption is a major factor in this year's elections. Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) pled guilty last week to charges of conspiracy and making false charges and today resigned his House chairmanships.