Billions of dollars are being spent in the run-up to this November’s midterm elections. The Supreme Court has struck down limits on campaign spending by corporations and unions, as well as overall caps on individual donations to candidates for federal office. More and more money is also being spent through ostensibly independent “super PACs” and nonprofit entities.
Even as cash gushes through the system, though, we still have a key underpinning of our campaign finance law: the principle that the public has a right to know who finances campaigns, and how candidates, parties and other political committees are using those funds. If the Federal Election Commission, the agency charged with receiving and reviewing the reports and making the information available, falls down on the job, this principle is undermined.
On May 21, about a month after reports for the first quarter of this year were filed, the research and technology teams here at the Center for Responsive Politics did a routine download of F.E.C. data, as we’ve done hundreds of times in our 30-year history. We use the information to populate a database that allows anyone to track giving by individual donors, their employers and their economic interests and to examine the links among campaign money, lobbying activity and the personal finances of politicians and key officials.
Ascertaining that contributions are characterized correctly — Did the funds come from individuals? Did they flow through another organization? Are the donors and recipients identified correctly? — has been a basic responsibility of the F.E.C. almost since its inception, along with tasks like making sure the data reflect amended filings and avoid duplication of records. This processing isn’t particularly high-tech, but it has to be done right, and quickly.
For years, the F.E.C. has said in its strategic planning documents that it would complete 95 percent of its processing within 30 days of a filing deadline.
So when we downloaded the F.E.C. files on May 21, we believed that virtually all reports from 2014 House candidates submitted by April 15 would be included. We were shocked to find, however, that information for 347 of the 703 active House candidates for the first quarter of the year was missing.
We asked the F.E.C. if something unusual — an information technology crisis, perhaps — had occurred. The response was much more disturbing: The agency told us it simply hadn’t finished processing the filings. We’d never heard that one before.
The F.E.C. has been frequently derided as an ineffective body because, with its structure of three Democratic and three Republican commissioners, getting agreement on anything can be tortuous. But for the most part, the commission was seen as doing an adequate job on disclosure.
That perception appears no longer to be correct.
As an F.E.C. employee from 1981 to 2011 — I served as a statistician, as the chief press officer, and as a special assistant helping to set up the agency’s website and electronic filing system, among other roles — I bear no small share of responsibility for failing to move the commission further in the direction of effective disclosure. Sadly, the agency has lost sight of the core elements of its mission.
The missing data wasn’t the first lapse. There have been long periods over the last year, for instance, when important parts of the disclosure portal on the F.E.C. website have been unavailable.
But we were so struck by the missing information for many campaigns that we asked the F.E.C. for detailed breakdowns of the time required to process new filings in each quarter over the last several years. We expected to be able to tell whether this lag was an aberration, or part of a trend.
The answer we received alarmed us.
“The Commission is keenly aware of the brief delay in the processing of itemized transactions filed in the campaign finance reports,” the F.E.C. press office told us in a letter, adding, “In the current two-year election cycle, the Agency has taken more than 30 days to process 18.8 percent of the new reports filed as of June 20, as compared to 11.4 percent for the same period in the 2011-2012 cycle.”
This increase in delays, and the lackadaisical characterization of the delays as “brief,” are disconcerting. (We didn’t receive numbers by quarter for previous years, as we’d requested.)
The F.E.C.’s very model for receiving and disclosing the reports doesn’t work. In a world in which information is recorded in databases and transmitted electronically, campaigns and committees should be responsible for properly organizing and presenting the data as they prepare their filings. It shouldn’t be up to the F.E.C. to clean up errors and omissions, as it has historically done.
While funding shortages are a problem, they don’t adequately explain these delays — nor did the commission cite them as a problem in its response to us. Instead, we believe that the organization has neglected a crucial responsibility.
With so much money sloshing through our political system, thanks in part to the Supreme Court, accurate, consistent and complete disclosure of information becomes the only tool voters have to assess who’s funding our electoral politics. The F.E.C. must recommit itself to its basic obligation to save what’s left of our campaign finance laws.