Senate Buries Donations in Mountains of Paper


If you’ve got something to hide and you don’t want anyone to find it, hide it in plain view. That’s an old idea, closely akin to another old saying: If you can’t dazzle them with BS, bury them with paper. Both, sadly, apply today. For here we are in 2006 and the United States Senate – unlike everyone else – still files its campaign contributions on paper, as if the year were 1956 and computers were expensive and suspect.

Today the only things expensive and suspect are the Senate campaigns themselves. They’ll be collecting their last-minute campaign dollars from people whose identities won’t be known until weeks after the election is finished.

Getting the Senate to file electronically has been a long – and so far hapless – effort. It’s the subject of Jeffrey Birnbaum’s K Street Confidential column in today’s Washington Post:

As it is, almost all senators and Senate candidates deliver their reports on paper (even though those reports are written on computers). The paper filings are laboriously scanned and then key-punched into an electronic system, a procedure that often takes six weeks to finish and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.

After the reports are submitted to the Secretary of the Senate (often well past published deadlines), they are placed onto the Federal Election Commission’s Web site in a page-by-page format. The listings are not searchable, which makes it almost impossible for anyone to glean useful information. Think of the process like rummaging through thousands of disorderly papers in a very large box.

This is an issue that has befuddled me for two decades. The rest of the participants in federal elections – House candidates, PACs and the political parties – have been filing electronically since 1995. Ten years later the Senate is still holding out. Birnbaum points out that “it’s hard to find anyone who will defend the current law.”

He also identifies where the problem may lie:

The Senate’s Committee on Rules and Administration is in charge of deciding what to do about the issue and, despite pleas from a bipartisan group of senators, has done nothing. I tried many times in the past two weeks to get the spokeswoman for the committee’s chairman, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), to return my phone calls and to answer questions on the topic. But she did not respond.

As it happens, Lott is running for reelection this year. If you want to pore through his campaign filings yourself, it’s easy enough to do – as long as you don’t care about little things like adding up the numbers. You can find an index of the images of Sen. Lott’s contribution reports here on the FEC’s website.

If you add up the pages by hand – the only way to do it – you’ll see that Lott has filed a total of 466 pages of reports so far this election year. That’s pretty thin by Senate standards. As of the end of June, Lott had raised a relatively modest $2.4 million for his campaign. (On the other hand, his Democratic opponent has raised just under $14,000 so this race is not exactly going to be a nail-biter on election night.)

If you really want to pore through the records yourself, I suggest loading up with a few reams of printer paper – more if you’re interested in Hillary Clinton or one of the other top-dollar races. And make sure you’ve got a very fast internet connection.

I do my web surfing over a DSL line, which is normally fast enough, but when you’re looking at these reports, you’ll have to sit and wait a few seconds for each page to load. After all, it’s searching a massive database, and pulling up the images one page at a time.

In contrast to Lott’s modest filings, the campaign of Sen. Hillary Clinton has filed nearly 20,000 pages of paper reports over the past two years of the current election cycle. Her July quarterly report alone ran to 4,169 pages. On standard printer paper, that July report is a foot and a half high. The whole 20,000 pages would stack up as tall as a six-foot-eight basketball player. Good luck digging through it.

And remember: these mountains of paper are actually printouts of information that’s already inside each campaign’s computers. Aside from paper and ink manufacturers – and the companies earning all those taxpayer dollars for scanning and hand-entering the data – it’s hard to see who benefits from the current arrangement.

Aside, of course, from the Senators themselves, whose last-minute campaign contributions will only be scrutinized long after the election is over. No wonder Lott’s committee spokesperson isn’t returning phone calls.