Opinion

It Is Time for the U.S. Senate to Join the 21st Century

Face it: Washington doesn’t work the way it ought to. Plenty of agencies are mired in bureaucratic red tape and hundreds of rules appear to exist only to hamper a responsive and transparent federal government.

One of these arcane practices is straight out of the pre-internet age, before iPhones, Uber and Twitter. It also wastes $500,000 of the taxpayers’ money each year and only serves to keep constituents in the dark about who’s contributing to Senate campaigns until months after the fact.

So while Senate candidates continue to file their campaign finance reports on paper and drag out what should be a simple process of disclosing their financial backers, all 435 members of the House of Representatives, political action committees and candidates for president live in the 21st century and file their campaign finance reports online.

This is not complicated. I had to file these reports when I served in the House. In fact, more than 50 million Americans follow a similar process when preparing and filing their taxes electronically every year.

In this case, politicians are simply creating dead weight and waste where it does not belong. Imagine the state of the economy if the private sector were allowed to do the same.

The paper submission process is labor-intensive and costly. Here is how it works: A senator must print out their campaign finance report, which likely originated electronically, and mail it to the Secretary of the Senate, who then scans the documents into digital images, which is sent to the Federal Election Commission by email. The FEC posts the scanned images on its website — hiding campaign finance data in plain sight by making it unsearchable — then prints the reports and sends the pages to a government contractor charged with typing the information back into a searchable format online. All told, the reports go from digital to print to digital to print to digital. Several weeks and hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars later, the information is available to the public.

What a Byzantine system.

To combat this, Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) have introduced the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act to fix the Senate’s purposefully antiquated “disclosure” practice. It would reveal who’s behind the last-minute surges of campaign contributions to Senate campaigns just before Election Day and key legislative votes. The only reason to continue to slow-walk these disclosures is to delay public awareness. It denies valuable transparency which has the potential to foster accountability by informing voters about who is aligned with and investing in their potential elected officials.

The bill has bona fide bipartisan credentials; its coalition of cosponsors includes Republicans, Democrats and independents, uniting the parties toward a common goal of modernizing government to work more efficiently for the benefit of the American people. I can count on one hand the number of Senate bills that aim to save taxpayer dollars and have real bipartisan support from more than 40 senators.

With a new poll showing Americans believe they have too little influence in Washington — especially when it comes to Congress — the Senate can begin to repair the the lost trust and send a signal that transparency and accountability are at the forefront of their minds moving forward.

These are the type of commonsense fixes the national government needs to be more responsive to the American people. Constituents deserve better than outdated systems that cost taxpayers more money and withhold information from them only for the benefit of incumbent politicians. This is a bill whose time has come.

 

Former Congressman Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) represented Tennessee’s 3rd Congressional District from 1995 to 2011. He is co-chair of the ReFormers Caucus of Issue One, a nonprofit dedicated to government ethics and political reform.

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.