Imagine that when you deployed code, you printed it out line by line, scanned the printouts, converted the scans into PDFs and then paid a data-entry contractor to manually type all the code from the PDF back into a database.
This is basically what U.S senators do now when they file public reports detailing who contributed cash to their campaigns. Every quarter, they repeat this futile task in redundancy, all to delay public awareness of their financial backers. It’s as though someone hipped the Senate to Linus’s Law, and senators are intentionally using paper as a shield to hide potential conflicts of interest out of public view.
The Senate has refused to do what presidential candidates, all 435 members of the U.S. House and political action committees have been required to do since 1999: Electronically file their campaign contribution reports. It’s called e-filing, and it’s remarkably similar to how more than 51 million taxpaying Americans prepare and file their taxes every year.
This delay is a feature, not a bug, in how the Senate functions when it comes to transparency of money in politics. Let’s be honest — how many Senate campaigns do you think rely on paper files to keep track of their donors? At one point, this information surely was electronic.
Upgrading the Senate OS is not an ideological cause, and the good news is it’s not even a partisan issue. Republican and Democratic senators alike have co-sponsored a common-sense fix known as the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act every time the bill has been introduced since 2003. This year, more than 40 senators support the bill. Newspaper editorial boards across the country have endorsed it, voters have championed it, and even Cards Against Humanity sent scrolls of campaign contribution data as holiday gag gifts to get Americans riled up about it.
By design, the Senate is the deliberative branch, but it can’t possibly have spent nearly two decades on this paper beta test without realizing the digital equivalent is more efficient. We live in a time where I can remotely change the thermostat in my home from a plane while I’m landing after a business trip in Canada, watch in real time how my rideshare navigates its way to me on a map of a city I’m visiting for the first time, or scroll through a breaking news story that an enterprising journalist wrote and published from a phone while attending her son’s graduation.
Meanwhile, senators are sending the equivalent of carrier pigeons to deliver their campaign finance reports. Yet when it comes to building up their reputations on the campaign trail, there’s no digital tool they’ll leave behind as they tweet, livestream and endlessly email-fundraise their way into citizens’ lives.
This is important: We know these multi-million-dollar campaigns typically experience last-minute surges in campaign contributions just before Election Day, but we can’t look up which interests are investing in senators until after the elections are over and they’ve been sworn into office the following year. On the other hand, electronic disclosure on the presidential campaign trail reveals political influence in near-real time, which is how journalists can report on who’s benefitting from super-PACs to float their otherwise dying campaigns, for example.
There’s good reason for the rare bipartisanship support for the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act. For one, it would increase transparency of political influence, a solution that Americans across the political spectrum support. Here’s something else we can all get behind: E-filing would save taxpayer money. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the current paper-based process costs about $500,000 a year, and the CBO says e-filing could even increase federal revenues.
Do you know what other transparency bill once was stonewalled and is now one of the most widely respected laws? The Freedom of Information Act, which prevailed because journalists championed it for improving public access to government records. We should likewise have the freedom to know who’s helping elect senators to the “People’s Branch.” With congressional approval ratings in a tailspin since around the time e-filing became the norm, you’d think Senate leadership might realize that its long-term job security depended on passing bills that foster more accountability to the American people.
Maybe we need to send a singing telegram to get them to commit.
Gabriela Schneider is the chief communications officer at Issue One, a nonprofit, nonpartisan political reform and government ethics advocacy group. Schneider is a veteran strategic communications professional with nearly two decades experience working at the intersection of politics, technology and social good. Before joining Issue One, she spent eight years as the communications director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for open government. Reach her @stereogab.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.