A better way to see who’s buying your senator

A new system could report campaign payoffs immediately

Published September 25, 2018 4:00AM (EDT)


This post originally appeared on Common Sense Media.
Common Sense Media

It only took 15 years, but senators must now electronically file their campaign finance reports directly to the Federal Elections Committee (FEC) as part of a provision tacked onto a larger appropriations bill that Trump signed on September 21.

The provision is only one sentence long in the Energy and Water, Legislative Branch, and Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act, but it has accomplished what several previous attempts to transition from paper to electronic filings since the early 2000s could not.

For one, this new system means that information could become immediately available to the public once filed, as is the case with House of Representative and presidential candidates, which have electronically filed their disclosures directly to the FEC since 2001. The previous process took weeks and sometimes months to complete.

It also is estimated to save nearly a million dollars annually in taxpayer money by eliminating the old system, which relied on Senators submitting paper reports to the Secretary of the Senate, who would then process those thousands of paper reports before submitting them to the FEC, which would have to turn those disclosures into data.

The antiquated system was also prone to errors – millions of dollars’ worth. An investigation by The Center for Public Integrity found more than $70 million in errors in nearly 6,000 candidate disclosures from a process that involved two government agencies, one government contractor, one subcontractor and overseas workers paid cheaply for data entry. Before 2016, the FEC data was digitized page by page by traditional data entry clerks who entered the records one at a time, according to The Center for Public Integrity.

In one ridiculous error found by the investigation, it showed U.S. Senate candidate Bill Bledsoe, a Libertarian running for a seat to represent South Carolina, spent $613,638 to fill up his van’s gas tank – an error that occurred two weeks in a row, when somewhere along the line his FEC identification number was mistaken for his gas payment. Just once was enough gas to fuel a mission to the moon 10 times, according to the article by The Center for Public Integrity. And the kicker is that Bledsoe, a Libertarian running for a seat to represent South Carolina, spent less than $2,000 on his entire campaign.

“This reform has been a long time coming. It’s a big win for taxpayers and transparency,” FEC Vice Chair Ellen L. Weintraub said in a statement when the ruling became law.

The investigation compared errors from paper filings to electronic filings and found that 20% of digitized paper filings had at least one significant error, compared to 2% for electronic ones.

In addition to numerical errors like the one with Bledsoe, there were thousands of records that had missing names for expenditures and contributions – information that voters never had access to because it is forever lost in translation.

Voters will now have more information to help them make decisions at the ballot box.

The idea to include the e-filing provision in the spending bill was that of Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) when the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act wasn’t brought to a floor vote, despite having more than 50 bipartisan cosponsors. That bill had been introduced for the first time in 2003 and reintroduced 15 more times. It never reached a vote.

The new Senate e-filing rules go into effect immediately, and the FEC states it does not have the authority to grant waivers or filing extensions. If a Senator does not receive contributions or have expenditures in excess of $50,000 a year, electronic filing is optional.

Voters’ Resources
Represent.Us – A bipartisan anticorruption site with information on current laws, policies, national and local resources to help make a difference in political financing.U.S. House of Representatives Financial Disclosure Database – Use this site to view the financial disclosure statements for Congressional members and candidates.United States Senate Financial Disclosures – This site provides the financial reports for Senators, former Senators and candidates from January 2012 to present. Senator reports are available until six years after the Senator leaves office; candidate reports are available for one year after they run for office.

Republicans Overwhelmingly Prefer Bad Food to Good Food
Voters will get a chance to see how their representatives in Congress have voted on important food and agricultural policy issues just before the midterm elections. Food Policy Action (FPA) is launching a digital resource for voters to see how members of Congress have voted over the past six years on policy issues spanning food safety issues, the environment, and aid to the hungry, as well as the recently passed Farm Bill.

Food Policy Action, a collaboration of national food policy leaders, is launching a new website for voters that gives insight into the voting patterns of Congressional members and assigns a score to each member of the House of Representatives in five areas of food and agricultural policy, from 0% to 100%. On average, Republicans received a score of 20% for 55 votes, compared to 93% for Democrats. Food Policy Action’s website also ranks Senators by voting performance.

Under the Trump Administration, we’ve seen rollbacks in nutritional standards for school lunches; budget proposals that endanger food assistance programs for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, beneficiaries – the largest domestic hunger safety net for millions of low-income individuals and families; and a delay by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of a new rule that includes farmworker protection from exposure to pesticides, to name just a few.

As part of the voter toolkit, Food Policy Action has also condensed its topline findings from its annual report, A Plate Divided: Food Policy and Congress, which was released earlier this year, for voters.
Update: Supreme Court Upholds Ruling on Dark Money Donors
The Supreme Court decided in a unanimous ruling to uphold a lower court’s decision to require some dark-money groups to disclose their donors. The order came in swift response to vacate a stay issued three days earlier by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., that temporarily blocked the ruling.

In August, Judge Beryl A. Howell of the Federal District Court in Washington, made the ruling that many nonprofit groups that placed ads supporting or opposing political candidates must disclose the identities of donors who contributed more than $200, based on a case brought by watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). CREW sued the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS.

Before that ruling, these groups, which are not registered as political committees with the FEC, were able to shield all their donors, thereby earning the term ‘dark money’.

A federal appeals court will still hear an appeal of Judge Howell’s ruling, but no decision is expected until after votes are cast for the midterms. That means groups placing ads from now until election day will have to disclose their donors.


By Jillian S. Ambroz

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