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For senators, pride goeth before the fall election

Marketplace Staff Sep 29, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: In Washington today Congress was hustling to wrap up its business and get out of town. There’s only five-and-a-half weeks ’til election day and oh so many hands to shake and babies to kiss. All 435 members of the House will face the voters. Thirty-three Senate seats are on the ballot, too. But commentator Jeff Birnbaum says the members of the upper chamber are playing by a different set of rules.

JEFF BIRNBAUM: The Senate is a bit too self-important. It thinks its members are above letting the public know in a timely way how much money they collect and spend for their elections.

Candidates for the House, the White House, plus every other type of political organization — from lobbyists to independent groups called 527s — have to file their campaign-finance reports via the Internet.

When that happens people can see which special interests are pouring money into campaigns at the moment those campaigns most need it most. That can be a pretty good indicator of the sorts of policies that legislator may later push.

But the Senate is exempt from the fixed eye of cyberspace.

That body has declined to vote itself into the 21st Century, though it’s done that with every one of those other entities.

As it is, senators and Senate candidates deliver their reports on paper, even though those reports are written on computers.

The government then spends hundreds of thousands of dollars having the documents listed in an expensive computer system that is not searchable. Goodbye useful information.

The result: voters don’t know in the last critical months before an election, including this one, how much their candidates for Senate are spending and who is bankrolling them.

After the election, when they do find out, it’s too late to vote a different way. If that’s not arrogance, I don’t know what is.

Now, a group of senators and some activists are pushing for change. They say the Senators should be required to file their disclosures electronically just like everyone else.

And as far as I can tell, not a single senator is willing to say otherwise publicly.

But then again, the bill that mandates electronic filing isn’t going anywhere, and this is the last week of the regular legislative session.

Pride often goeth before a Fall, they say, and you might just hear some thuds in the midterm election.

RYSSDAL: Jeff Birnbaum is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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