Commentary: Those crazy senators and their donor reports

Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee. (Sacramento Bee/MCT)
Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee. (Sacramento Bee/MCT)

The U.S. Senate insulted us the other day and got a good laugh at our expense, once again.

Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell joined in on the little game, as did lesser leaders Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and newer members Al Franken, D-Minn., and Rand Paul, R-Ky.

The issue has nothing to do with war, or the mess in the Middle East, or how to comfort the downtrodden. But it does reflect the arrogance and hypocrisy of senators from both parties. It involves campaign finance disclosure, though not disclosure of million-dollar donors to the secretive super PACs that have dominated the presidential campaign.

Rather, it involves basic disclosure of donors who give money directly to senators' campaign committees.

President Barack Obama and his Republican challengers, House incumbents and candidates, and the people who run all those many independent political action committees must file campaign finance reports online for the world to see.

Thousands of them filed disclosure reports by the deadline of Jan. 31, detailing their 2011 fundraising. Scofflaws who failed to meet the deadline face fines imposed by the Federal Election Commission.

But senators, being senators, write their own rules, and they refuse to require themselves to file campaign finance statements on the Internet where voters might actually see who gives them money and how they spend it. And perhaps voters might gain insight into the moneyed interests that influence their senators.

Instead, virtually all senators file paper copies of their reports in an office far from the public's view. The reports then go through a convoluted and costly process, and may or may not get onto the Internet by the time people cast their votes.

Not to bore you with the details, but senators use the postal service, or maybe horse-drawn carriages, to deliver campaign reports to the inaptly named Senate Office of Public Records.

There, civil servants scan and email the reports a few blocks away to the Federal Election Commission, where staffers use old-fashioned copy machines to copy the pages – reports can run 5,000 pages or more – box them up and send them to Virginia.

There, people working on a contract keypunch some details, but not all, onto pages, which ultimately are posted on the FEC website (www.fec.gov). It can take weeks and cost upward of $250,000 a year.

There's nothing to prevent senators from voluntarily filing their reports online, and eight senators filed by Jan. 31, including Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who generally submits her reports electronically.

Bob Biersack, former Federal Election Commission press secretary, calls the voluntary electronic filings "convenient cover" and little more than public relations posturing.

"Nobody treats them seriously," said Biersack, senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center for Responsible Politics, which tracks money in politics. "It is a game without rules."

The hypocrisy of the system is rich. Two weeks ago, Franken and Schumer, who don't file their reports online, held a press conference in Washington to declare their intention to introduce legislation to require full and complete disclosure, not of their own campaign finance reports, but of the reports filed by super PACs.

The senators didn't return my calls. But the Minneapolis Star Tribune quoted Franken as saying that the rise of hidden money is "turning people off."

"We have to make some changes or the American people are going to get so cynical, as we know they already are," Franken's hometown paper quoted him as saying. The comedian-senator must have gotten a hearty laugh.

Five years ago, when I first wrote about this issue, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California was chair of the powerful Senate Rules Committee, and vowed to push for electronic disclosure.

"It's time to bring the Senate into the modern era," Feinstein declared in 2007, and then moved on.

Each year since, one senator or another has introduced legislation to require electronic disclosure. Each year, one senator or senators quietly has killed the legislation. Rumors and theories abound about who the killers are and what their motives are. Democrats and Republicans are suspects. Senators don't call them out. They must all like it that way.

Feinstein is a regular online filer, although this year, she filed her year-end 2011 report a week past the Jan. 31 deadline, if senators had a deadline. If senators didn't exempt themselves from the electronic filing requirement, Feinstein might have faced a fine, probably of $6,900.

In her case, however, there were extenuating circumstances. Until last year, her campaign treasurer was Kinde Durkee. Durkee is under federal investigation for stealing money from scores of Democratic politicians. Feinstein lost up to $5.2 million and has hired a law firm to reconstruct her reports.

"We couldn't e-file because the numbers wouldn't have been correct," said Bill Carrick, her campaign consultant. "We have a new firm and they've had to reconstruct all those records."

The others don't have an excuse.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who faces a tough re-election fight, is carrying the legislation this year to require senators to file their reports online. Odds are the bill will die, like it did last year and the year before.

Tester apparently is new to the world of the Internet. He started filing his reports electronically only in 2011. The joke is on us.

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