© 1996 Public Radio International
Marketplace August 1996

Congress should pass electronic filing

by Gary Selnow

Before they left town for the campaign trail, members of Congress killed campaign finance reform, then without skipping a beat, reported taking in 448 million dollars in campaign contributions, an increase of 15 percent over the same period in the 1994 election.

You have to wonder when the American people will say enough is enough. If Congress won't pass serious finance reform, at least it should tell the American people how much money candidates are getting and where they're getting it from--before the election.

The way it works now, candidates must submit financial reports on paper seven times throughout an election year to the Federal Election Commission. Because of the volume and unwieldiness of the reports, much of the information rarely sees daylight until the election is long over.

But, technology has given us a way to fix this problem with electronic reporting which uses computers and the Internet. You and I could have this information hours after it's submitted. That way, voters, watch groups and the press could analyze the data in time to have it do some good when we all go to the polls.

Why hasn't Congress taken this simple step? To hear some tell it, it's just too difficult, and the electronic formats aren't standardized. That's a ruse. Electronic reports pose no greater burden, and inexpensive, tested software is ready to ship with the morning mail.

Foot draggers also complain that voters will misinterpret the numbers. Now, just how will voters do that? I'd give us more credit. And I'd beware of a politician who says we aren't smart enough to understand his financial reports. We just might understand them all too well. Let's quit playing games. In the next session, the Congress should pass legislation that does at least two things: First, require electronic filing of all financial statements. The Federal Election Commission is toying with a voluntary system. That's not good enough. Congress should mandate compliance.

Second, require that the Federal Election Commission post these financial reports on the Internet within 24-hours of the filing deadlines. That's easy to do with existing technology.

Even if Congress keeps stalling on campaign finance reform, at least it should give us a timely look at the amounts and the sources of money that fuel their campaigns. It's time Congress stopped stonewalling American voters on campaign finances and put the information onto the Internet for all of us to see.

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