Senators move donor disclosures at a snail’s pace

Times Staff Writer

In a windowless office at the Federal Election Commission, a 10-year-old printer churns out 500 pages an hour -- hour after hour.

“It’s a mule,” says J. Arnold Queen, the man who tends the Hewlett-Packard 8100-N, a discontinued model.

Overnight, the HP-8100 had spewed forth 2,000 pages. It can’t crank out more until its trays are emptied. Tens of thousands more pages are backed up in the queue. It will be working through the day, into the night and over the weekend.


Like most beasts of burden, the machine is a throwback, part of an anachronistic and costly system that exists in large part to serve the members -- the Luddites, some would say -- of the United States Senate.

Unlike candidates for president and the House, political action committees and most state offices, senators refuse to transmit their campaign donation reports over the Internet.

Thanks to a labyrinthine process that takes weeks or months, they are able to delay public access to their campaign donors’ identities -- sometimes until after the election.

Now that seven senators are running for the White House and using money raised as senators to jump-start their campaigns, the practice is under renewed scrutiny.

Senators have blocked repeated efforts, backed by 25 of their colleagues from both parties, to change the law.

“Here is something no one opposes. No one. Why hasn’t it passed?” asks Steven Weissman of the nonprofit Campaign Finance Institute.

The answer, he and others say, is that senators don’t really want it to pass. But no one argues against it publicly. It’s killed in more subtle ways, away from public view.

Like all federal officeholders, senators were required to submit year-end campaign finance reports by Wednesday. Such reports are public documents. But that doesn’t mean they are publicly available. Nor will they be any time soon.

“We’ve seen months go by when the records are not available,” Weissman said.

“It’s stupidity,” said Bob Biersack, FEC spokesman.

“It’s not an accident,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, which advocates more disclosure of campaign finances. “It’s disclosure that no one can see.”

It’s not for lack of technology. Senators, good politicians that they are, use computers to track their campaign contributors and maintain campaign records. But rather than transmit this information electronically to comply with the disclosure laws, senators print the documents -- which can run thousands of pages -- and deliver them to the Senate’s public disclosure unit two blocks away.

Many senators drop them in the mail. As long as they are postmarked by the filing date, they are in compliance with the law. Some reports may not arrive for days. The report for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) didn’t reach the Senate office until Friday.

There, Senate staffers scan the reports, page by page, transforming them back to digital images. That can take two days.

Then they send the reconstituted computer files by e-mail to the FEC. There, the HP-8100 goes to work, printing and collating the material and preparing it for key-punchers.

A report on all of the Senate Democrats’ campaign donors last year consumed 5,487 pages. A similar Republican report weighed in at 4,650 pages. At 500 pages per hour, that equates to between nine and 11 hours, paper jams notwithstanding -- though Queen notes that the 8100 “just keeps on going.”

The process -- which occurs quarterly, and more often in election years -- doesn’t end there.

Once the reports are collated and boxed, a courier picks them up and drives them an hour or so to Fredericksburg, Va. There, a private contractor, ILM Corp., employs workers to type the information back into a computer -- at a cost to taxpayers of $250,000 a year.

Since key-punchers are human, they make mistakes. In one case, a $200,000 entry was reported as $2.3 million.

Once that’s done, the data are transmitted electronically back to the FEC -- which then posts them online. The process can take months.

As a result, voters had no clue who donated to candidates in the closing weeks in six tight races in November, Weissman said. The reports for some challengers and incumbents in Missouri, Montana, Pennsylvania and elsewhere did not become public until after the election.

Donations came from a tobacco company; corporate law firms; and energy, insurance, cable television and Wall Street firms -- information that might have helped sway some voters.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the influential Senate Rules Committee, is among those who endorsed legislation requiring senators to file electronically. The FEC has urged the change at least since 1997. Talk of requiring online filing comes as Congress considers legislation to expand disclosure requirements related to lobbyists. “It’s time to bring the Senate into the modern era,” Feinstein said in a statement this week.

Neither she nor another advocate of change, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), was available to discuss why the change is being blocked, or by whom.