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Another Victim of the Shutdown: Senate Campaign Finance Disclosure

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Senate E-Filing At Its FinestCongress has failed to keep the government running for more than a week, and even though life on the campaign fundraising circuit has slowed somewhat, the government shutdown won’t stop members of Congress from asking for—and receiving—campaign contributions. The unseemliness of elected officials dialing for dollars from fat cat contributors while 800,000 federal workers are shut out of their jobs is bad enough. But, as a twisted result of the government shutdown, Senate candidates will get a pass on filing their disclosure reports on time and the public will be completely in the dark as to who is funding their campaigns.

October 15 is the quarterly deadline for candidates to file their campaign finance reports. The Federal Election Commission has said it won't penalize filers who, as a result of the shutdown, fail to file on time, but, unlike many other agencies, the FEC’s website has remained online. Therefore, at least until the site crashes and there are no humans around to fix it, most candidates should still be able to meet the filing deadline. Indeed, according to Public Integrity, at least some electronic campaign finance reports that were due earlier were being published. So, it's possible that some campaign finance information will be publicly available even if the government remains closed for business. But, there is one glaring exception. If the shutdown continues, Senate candidates won’t have any reason to file their reports on time and there will be no chance for the public to see who is contributing to their campaigns. That’s because the Senate has exempted itself from the mandatory electronic filing requirements that have applied to the House, presidential candidates, parties and PACs for more than a decade. Senate candidates file paper reports with the Secretary of the Senate, who delivers copies to the FEC so that staff there can enter the data into their public databases.  But no staff means no data entry, and no data entry means no chance for the public to see who is funding candidates’ campaigns.

There is no excuse for Senate candidates to be using an antiquated paper filing system. The Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act, S. 375, would mandate online filing.The bill was introduced by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and has 36 bi-partisan cosponsors.  In addition, an informal survey by the Sunlight Foundation found that seven additional senators -- Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Dean Heller, R-Nev., Tim Kaine, D-Va., John McCain, R-Ariz., Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.,  and Roger Wicker, R-Miss. --  support electronic filing even though they have not cosponsored the bill.  (There are probably more, but due to the government shutdown, Senate staffers were not available to answer our inquiries.)

Perhaps more telling is that when we asked, no senator came right out and said he or she opposes electronic filing.  So why aren’t senators required to file their campaign finance reports online? The blame lies squarely at the feet of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.,  who has refused to allow a clean disclosure bill to come to the Senate floor. (Sound familiar?) And how ironic that McConnell is now arguing in favor of lifting all limits to candidates’ campaigns.  He obviously sees benefits to unlimited contributions combined with limited disclosures, but for the public, limits combined with real time online disclosures remain the best deterrent to corruption of the appearance of corruption of our political process.

As long as the FEC’s website remains operational, senators who support online filing also have the option of voluntarily filing their campaign finance reports online, as Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Thad Cochran, R-Miss., John Cornyn, R-Texas, Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Al Franken, D-Minn., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Angus King, I-Maine, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Schumer, Tester and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have done. We hope those senators and at least of few of their colleagues will try to file their reports electronically when the October deadline arrives.

Even with the shutdown, unpaid government workers are still expected make their mortgage payments and pay their utility and credit card bills. And when they figure out how to pay those bills, they will probably pay them on time and online. Meanwhile Senate candidates who keep raking in the campaign cash despite the shutdown will be able to delay disclosure. Electronic filing of senate campaign finance reports is a small problem given the threats our democratic system faces right now, but reducing corruption by ensuring prompt and robust online disclosure is a value every member of Congress should support.