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September 18, 2006
Just Another Quixotic Monday ....

Perhaps Porkbusters may have another issue to press in the cause of open government. Jeffery Birnbaum reports in today's Washington Post about an exception to election rules requiring immediate electronic filing of political contributions, rules that allow voters to determine to whom politicians may be beholden before casting their votes. Not to worry, though -- the exception only affects 100 offices:

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. ...

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.

Birnbaum describes this exception as a "quirk", but this hardly seems accidental. As he mentions, this system gives Senators and their challengers a big advantage in the elections, and I suspect it protects incumbents far more than challengers. Controversial contributors can hold off their donations until the final couple of months when the money is critically needed for last-minute attack ads, and voters have no way to determine where politicians got the cash until well after the election ... when most will have lost interest in the provenance of contributions.

How did this exception get created? The Senate has obviously approved tough disclosure rules for House and presidential campaigns, and rightly so. However, the upper chamber has never addressed openness in its own dealings with contributors, and apparently has no plans to do so now. A bipartisan group approached Trent Lott in July, sending a letter requesting that his Committee on Rules and Administration address this hypocrisy, signed by the seven Republicans and four Democrats and spearheaded by Lott's Mississippi colleague Thad Cochran and Russ Feingold. The eleven elicited no better response than did Birnbaum, who got stiffed by a Lott staffer when trying to get a comment for his article.

Now that we have successfully lobbied for searchable databases for the federal budget and for public identification of earmarks, we need to pursue electronic filing of Senatorial election contributions. For some reason, Trent Lott and a number of our elected representatives in the Senate want to keep us from accessing that information in a timely manner. Usually that means they either have something to hide or see the clunky, slow process currently in use as a hedge for their incumbency. We need to remind them that they serve at our pleasure, and that playing games with full disclosure does not please us in the least.

My friends, I spy another windmill that requires our attention!

UPDATE: Meanwhile, our last project is about to cross the finish line, and the Examiner celebrates a new era.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at September 18, 2006 6:12 AM

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