Congress must revamp campaign finance online reporting, watchdog says

Expanded corporate contributions requires robust, interoperable, open-source system

Congress must act quickly to set up a robust electronic online reporting system to track campaign donations in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited corporate and labor union donations to political campaigns, a nonprofit citizen watchdog group recommended today.

The court on Jan. 21 overturned decades of limitations on corporate campaign contributions. Congress should act swiftly to set up a new reporting regime before the next federal elections get into full swing, the Sunlight Foundation said in a seven-point proposal released today.

“It is incumbent upon Congress to immediately create a robust, rapid transparency regime that takes full advantage of technology. This requires real-time, online transparency on every level of influence, from independent expenditures to lobbying to bundled campaign contributions,” the watchdog group said in a news release.

The new reporting system ought to be electronic and should be based on open-source software to allow for full interoperability and maximum transparency, according to the proposal. Ideally, the system and its databases should be searchable, sortable, machine-readable and downloadable, the foundation said.

Currently, the Federal Elections Commission tracks campaign finance donations and spending. That would continue, but there would be a strengthening of regulations to ensure reports are filed more quickly and made available online.

In the wake of the Supreme Court decision, the Securities and Exchange Commission also will be involved in tracking such expenditures when made by public corporations. Under SEC rules, corporations generally must disclose major events to shareholders.

The Sunlight Foundation recommends that corporations report their campaign spending to the SEC within 24 hours after cutting a check. Similarly, labor unions would report their campaign expenditures to the Labor Department.

The group also recommends strengthening the disclosure rules for federal lobbyists and requiring them to file reports electronically. The reports also should be disclosed electronically.

The foundation also suggests creation of an online database of paid political advertisements, which would include the text or video of the ad. It should identify where and when the ad was placed, the cost to run the ad and the name of the organization that paid for it.

As part of the new robust reporting system, the FEC, SEC, Secretary of the Senate, Clerk of the House and other agencies involved should work together to create a common data format and standard, which is open and non-proprietary.

"We need to act right now to make sure that there are proper disclosure regulations on the books so that elected officials, corporations and labor unions can be held accountable to the American people, and significant criminal and civil penalties for anyone who tries to circumvent those regulations," said Ellen Miller, executive director and co-founder of the Sunlight Foundation.

Previously, the foundation has called attention to transparency in government, including tracking which lawmakers post their schedules and earmark requests online. President Barack Obama said in the State of the Union speech that all congressional earmark requests included in proposed legislation should be posted online prior to a vote.

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