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MailTribune.com
  • Living in the past

    In the 21st century, U.S. senators still file their finance reports on paper
  • Unofficially known as "the world's greatest deliberative body," the U.S. Senate moves at a more genteel pace than the lower chamber, known as "the people's house." But there is a time and a place for leisure, and when it comes to disclosing financial contributions to members' campaign funds, there is no excuse for delay.
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  • Unofficially known as "the world's greatest deliberative body," the U.S. Senate moves at a more genteel pace than the lower chamber, known as "the people's house." But there is a time and a place for leisure, and when it comes to disclosing financial contributions to members' campaign funds, there is no excuse for delay.
    And yet, delay is standard operating procedure for Senators' campaign finance reports.
    Candidates for the U.S. House, candidates for president of the United States, and most candidates for any elective office in Oregon must by law report campaign contributions and expenditures electronically — so the information is posted immediately for voters to review.
    U.S. senators, however, still file their reports on paper. The paper reports are scanned and sent to the Federal Elections Commission, which gives them to a private contractor whose employees type the data into a computer system, and the FEC then posts the results online. Senators' campaign staffs keep track of this data electronically to begin with, of course. But the official procedure is to print it out, scan it, type it back in and only then post it online.
    That can take weeks. A Senator can collect a pile of cash from well-heeled special interests in the final days before an election and voters will not know who made the donations until after the votes are counted.
    That's a sweet deal, to say the least. And the deal persists because the Senate makes its own rules.
    There have been efforts to change that rule and require senators to file electronically but, not surprisingly, those efforts have failed.
    This is Sunshine Week, a public project sponsored by the American Society of News Editors to highlight the importance of open government. If anything is worth exposing to the light of day this week and every week, it is the source of contributions to political campaigns.
    There was a time when those reports were processed on paper because that was the best technology available. Today, when the phone in your pocket can retrieve data instantly from across the globe, and when a candidate for the Rogue River City Council must file electronic reports, there is no excuse for the financial records of U.S. senators not to be available online as soon as they are submitted.
    Despite the failure of reform efforts, some Senators voluntarily file their reports electronically. At last count, 20 of 100 senators were doing that.
    Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden was not on that list last year, but he filed his end-of-year report electronically in January. Sen. Jeff Merkley did not.
    It's true that Merkley faces what could be a tough re-election battle this year, while Wyden does not. But Merkley happened to be a co-sponsor of a bill last year to require senators to e-file.
    He's not alone: 22 of his colleagues who also co-sponsored the e-filing bill did not file electronically in the past, and 16 were not expected to do so by the January deadline, except on paper — which is about as flimsy as any excuse they could offer.
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