When Democrats took over both chambers of Congress following the 2006 elections, one of their top priorities was a bill with tougher lobbying disclosure requirements. It was signed into law in September 2007 , but a provision requiring disclosure of money “bundling” by registered lobbyists took longer than expected to take effect. The Federal Election Commission (FEC), hobbled by the lack of a quorum for most of 2008, did not put the new disclosure rules into effect until February of 2009. The regulations created a system in which a political committee must identify and report bundlers of more than $16,000 per half-year period. Bundlers, of course, are that unique Washington creature who are able to gather lots of political donations from friends and family and then hand the money to a committee, saving the candidate much time and effort in fundraising.
With the new rules at last in place, political committees began to file the new Form L3 in May 2009. So far, just 96 lobbyists have been identified as bundlers by their committees, combining for about $6 million in contributions to candidates, PACs, and party committees. And while the disclosure of these names is a step in the right direction, problems remain that limit the usefulness of the data.
The 2007 law requires that, “to the greatest extent practicable,” the FEC makes the lobbyist bundler disclosures “publicly available through the Commission website in a manner that is searchable, sortable, and downloadable.” However, the scanned forms are stored in non-searchable .PDF formats, are in no way indexed by bundler name, and are, in some cases, barely legible or handwritten. There is no easy way to search or sort by an individual bundler’s name. Instead, each disclosure form is organized by campaign committee, requiring database users to spend hours examining the forms one by one. For the Center for Public Integrity’s recent story listing the top five lobbyist bundlers, the FEC data had to be manually typed into a spreadsheet for analysis.
The statute also explicitly requires that the FEC link the database to the lobbying disclosure forms on the websites of the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives. Yet, while there are links on the FEC’s Lobbyist Bundling overview page, there is currently no linking to those or any other disclosure databases on the search page.
An FEC spokeswoman told the Center that disclosure of lobbyist bundling remains “a work in progress,” adding that “The list of filings meets the statutory requirement (searchable, sortable, downloadable), and we’re continuing to roll out more data in searchable, sortable formats. In the meantime, we are happy to answer requests for data files containing the specific entries from the reports.”
ABOUT THE DATA:
What: Lobbyist Bundler Disclosure Database
Where: Federal Elections Commission Web site, here
Availability: Accessible to the public
Format: Non-searchable .PDF
Usability: Non-searchable files, some handwritten and some illegible
Send your tips on government data sets that you think should be made more accessible or user-friendly to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re eager to hear what you turn up — full credit and links will be provided to individuals whose suggestions we use in our series.