For the better part of a decade, federal political campaigns and political committees have been required to file their campaign finance disclosure reports electronically with the Federal Election Commission, with one glaring exception: the U.S. Senate still files paper reports with the Senate. These reports are then forwarded to the FEC, where they are manually scanned and made available to the public online. The cost of this is a couple hundred thousand bucks a year, (about 1 second of federal government spending), and the process delays having the information widely available to the public by anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. For years, the FEC has recommended that Congress require electronic filing for the Senate. The Senate has resisted, on grounds of Senate perogative. (I should note that while serving as a Commission on the FEC from 2000-2005, I consistently voted for the recommendation that Senate campaigns file electronically). So it’s not that we oppose the idea of electronic filing.
But what is interesting to us is the rhetoric emanating from the "reform community." The failure of the Senate to file electronically has major reform groups in full lather, joined (for reasons we don’t really understand) by elements of the blog world. Leading the fight has been the Campaign Finance Institute (CFI). Their latest press release on the issue is here.
The CFI, ripping off a quote themselves, tells us "Disclosure delayed is disclosure denied." But that’s not really true. In fact, disclosure delayed is disclosure delayed. According to CFI:
"[A] week before the November 2006 election, voters in the ten hottest Senate races were unable to do searches on the Web for any individual contributions reported by the candidates for October 1-18. They could not even search for information about July 1-September 30 donations to six of the 20 major party candidates."
The horror of it all! Of course, eventually all this information will come out. But CFI argues – and this is true – that much of it will not be available before election day. "’The sources of a candidate’s financial support,’" we are told, quoting Buckley v. Valeo,"’alert the voter to the interests to which a candidate is most likely to be responsive and thus facilitate predictions of future performance in office.’ Clearly the fundamental purpose of disclosure is undermined if disclosure does not occur before the election." But we wonder a) how much this is true, and b) how much it matters.
The CFI arguments are disconnected from any discussion of how much the public *actually* relies on disclosure to gain information. This was excusable for the Court at the time of Buckley, because we had little experience with disclosure. But today surely research could find out if it is true. We are skeptical. We doubt that most voters would gain much, if anything, from the added disclosure of electronic filing before the election. First, even without this late breaking info, most contributions have been disclosed by this time. Second, most voters, we suspect, have a pretty good idea of who is supporting a candidate by election day – in part due to all the information already available from earlier reports, but also in part due to public endorsements and campaigning. They may not know the names of individual donors, but those names will not normally mean anything to them anyway. Meanwhile, the endorsements and campaigns will handle most of the rest. Donors are unlikely to hold back to the final days just to avoid a few weeks disclosure, given that the money is most needed, typically, well in advance of election day. And disclosure of anything else after the campaign will – if disclosure helps at all – keep most officeholders on the straight and narrow, and give voters important information at the time of the next election. How odd that CFI should quote Buckley for the proposition that disclosure helps voters to fix candidates on an ideological scale, when there is little or no empirical evidence to actually support that, yet CFI, like pretty much all of the officially designated "reform community," favors regulation of contributions to campaigns, though there is evidence that campaign spending helps voters to fix candidates on an ideological scale.
The excessive rhetoric is also typical of the "movement." For example, CFI notes that, "the only way voters and journalists can access Senate information filed shortly before an election or critical legislative vote is to leaf page by page through each report. In our era of breathless fundraising, these reports are as long as 3,400 pages per candidate. This is as good as no disclosure at all."
"As good as no disclosure at all?" Really? Yet until just this decade, you *always* had to leaf page by page through each (paper) report. If this was as good as "no disclosure at all," was Buckley in error back in 1976? Surely CFI does not mean to suggest that. The "reform community" never believed that the old, pre-internet system was "as good as no disclosure at all," because it is clearly not the same as "no disclosure at all."
CFI is concerned that amendments will be added to the bill. These amendments are described as "poison pills," meaning members of the "reform community" in Congress don’t like them. CFI is concerned that could "derail" the bill. But that needn’t happen, of course – all the refomers need to do is not oppose the amended bill (assuming the amendments pass). And assuming the amendments have the votes to pass, just who is thwarting the will of the majority? For a bit more of the overreach of reformers on this issue, see our earlier post here.
In other words, in this seemingly non-controversial, common-sense measure lie all the pathologies of the current "reform" movement: Grandiose claims made without empirical evidence, in defiance of common sense and, indeed, inconsistent with past pronouncements from the "reform community" itself; a rigid unwillingness to compromise; and vituperation thrown at all who stand in the way of "reform," whatever their reasons.
We leave with this thought: CFI notes that, "[t]wenty-six states already have mandatory electronic disclosure for state candidates." How do people in those other 24 states survive?