When Congress created the Federal Election Commission in the wake of Watergate more than two decades ago, one hope was that better disclosure would limit abuses of money in politics. There is little question that the FEC, although understaffed and starved of resources by Congress, helps journalists, public interest groups, political challengers and citizens to learn more about campaign cash.
However, anyone who has spent much time with FEC records knows there are serious shortcomings in the disclosure system. Many of the problems stem from one root: The commission's record-keeping system is a relic of the paper-based past, developed before government agencies and campaigns moved into the digital age. Disclosures aren't timely enough, sophisticated enough or comprehensive enough to keep track of the escalating amount of money flowing through campaigns.
Fortunately, advances in computer technology can fill these gaps, likely saving money for the federal government while improving access to information. Any campaign finance reform proposal should make swifter, more complete computerized disclosures a centerpiece.
The first step in modernizing the FEC is to get rid of paper. Although all serious campaigns are computerized today, FEC reports are filed on paper (some, astonishingly, are handwritten by campaign treasurers or candidates themselves). During the 1995-1996 campaign cycle, more than 5,500 candidates and 10,000 party and political action committees filed more than a quarter of a million reports containing several million pages. By the time the books are closed in January, it is likely that the number of individual and PAC contributions to federal candidates, and to fund-raising committees, will top 1.5 million, a record. This blizzard of paper threatens to bury the concept of meaningful disclosure.
FEC officials understand these problems, and they have been trying to bring the agency into the digital age. The agency pays to have the contributions reports typed into computers - a process that takes more than a month after a filing deadline to complete, and a system that unavoidably introduces mistakes into the data. In 1996, the commission began putting much of this information on the Internet.
This situation, in which records entered into computers, then printed on paper to be re-entered into computers, would be funny if it weren't so important. It should end, and all FEC reports should be filed electronically.
The commission will begin experimenting with electronic filing, beginning in 1997, by accepting some reports on disk. This timid step should be bypassed in favor of immediate, mandatory electronic reporting. If a transition is needed, use the nonelection year of 1997 to phase in the new system. By 1998, all reports should be digital.
Computer reports could help improve the reporting schedule. During years without congressional elections, candidates report just twice. During election years there is a patchwork of reporting dates that are tied mostly to state primary schedules. This system makes it difficult to track contributions.
For committees, including PACs, and party committees, the deadlines are downright bizarre. Some PACs file reports monthly, other quarterly, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to which committees file when. The result is that contributions often are not disclosed for several months, thwarting attempts to trace the flow of money. The busiest fund-raising time for most campaigns is in October, but the last pre-election finance reports cover only half the month. Reports covering the last burst of money weren't filed this year until Dec. 3, too late to have any influence on the election.
A much simpler schedule should be adopted. Candidates should file no later than the 5th of each month, committees by the 10th of the month. Beginning Sept. 1 of an election year, reports would be filed weekly. Daily reporting would be required during the last two weeks before a primary or general election.
The disclosures need to be more complete. Campaigns and committees should be forced to comply with rules requiring them to list a donor's occupation and employer. If the information is missing, the contribution should be put in trust until the information is filed. Many contributors use variations of their names and addresses when giving to candidates, making it difficult to get accurate readings about how much money, and to how many candidates, a particular person is contributing. The answer, though perhaps intrusive from a privacy viewpoint, is to have a unique FEC identifier assigned to each contributor.
A similar problem exists with PACs, where it is important to know, at least in general terms, the interests the committee represents. The FEC assigns PACs to six large, meaningless categories. Fortunately, the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington nonprofit that has led the way in campaign finance disclosure, has developed a useful system to categorize the interests of PACs. The FEC should negotiate to have these categories attached to the PAC's identifying information.
Electronic filing would mean better access to information about where campaign money goes. Candidates are required to file reports on disbursements, but the FEC doesn't computerize these records because of the volume and cost. Rules don't require campaigns to categorize their spending, even though in the case of presidential elections, tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money is at stake.
The FEC audits the presidential spending years after the fact. In 1992, for example, it learned that the Clinton campaign had paid a sexual harassment complaint against a staff member.
Finding wrongdoing isn't the only reason more attention should be paid to the spending side of campaigns; there also are important public policy reasons.
The only significant, comprehensive studies of campaign spending have been done by Dwight Morris, formerly a reporter at the Los Angeles Times and now a consultant on campaign finance issues. Morris' work shows that most of what we know DTC about where campaign money goes is wrong. For example, it is not television spending that is driving up campaign costs; in most House races all advertising accounts for less than a quarter of spending. What costs money is the permanent campaign - the offices, the computers, the trips home, the vans - that incumbents use to further their advantages and keep their seats. Yet, Congress, and most reformers, keep proposing free television time as a solution to higher campaign costs.
Using computer technologies to improve disclosure would present trivial technical problems and add little to the reporting burden of campaigns. The stumbling block here, as with other proposed reforms, is a lack of political will. Nothing significant will happen until members of Congress decide it is in their interest to promote disclosure. And that won't happen until members of the public make it clear they will settle for nothing less than timely, accurate, complete and meaningful information about where politicians spend their money.
Wendell Cochran teaches journalism in the School of Communication at American University. He maintains a World Wide Web site that provides campaign finance data:
Pub Date: 12/29/96