The Furloughs That Mattered To Campaigns: Financial Disclosure Forms

Campaign spending reports are yet another victim in the government shutdown, with key reports delayed as a result of furloughed federal workers.

Like other federal services, staffers for the FEC website were dramatically reduced during the shutdown. At one point just four employees were reportedly working for the agency during the shutdown. Moreover, certain documents on the FEC website were not available for the public to access and clicking on parts of the website resulted in a dead link with a “not found” message instead. As of Friday morning, some reports on the site were still not available.

The shutdown spanned a period that included a quarterly filing deadline for congressional candidates and the last few days before the New Jersey special election, in which Cory Booker (D) emerged victorious on Wednesday. The FEC set filing deadlines for a number of special elections prior to the shutdown in Alabama (Nov. 5), Louisiana (Oct. 19), Massachusetts (Oct. 15), and New Jersey (Oct. 19).

When workers returned on Thursday, they waived a fine for late filers and has made staff available this week to help those filers submit their disclosures. The shutdown was especially ideal for donors who wanted to quietly inject money into a race with a special election during the shutdown without anyone knowing.

The silver lining is that it’s still relatively early in the 2014 election cycle. Candidates are just starting to announce their campaigns now (Mississippi State Sen. Chris McDaniel (R) announced his candidacy for Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-MS) Senate seat a day after the shutdown ended). If the shutdown had lasted longer or if it had hit closer to the 2014 midterms, or even during a period where there are more special elections, the outcome could have been different. There could have been more campaigns that got away with not disclosing finance information that’s useful for voters preparing to cast their vote.

That said, there still were campaigns going on during the shutdown. Sunlight Foundation Executive Director Bill Allison cited the New Jersey special election as an example of where campaign disclosure information was not available.

Senate campaigns are exempted from having to do the electronic filing that campaigns for House seats or presidential candidates, political action committees or political parties are required to do. Rather they use what the Sunlight Foundation has called an “antiquated filing system” but with government staffers furloughed because of the shutdown, those disclosures did not make it onto the website for public consumption.

For New Jersey, there was a period when voters could not find out if a major campaign contribution was made to either now Senator-elect Cory Booker’s (D) campaign or Republican Steve Lonegan’s campaign. Both the Booker campaign and Lonegan campaigns submitted their disclosure information on time, Allison noted, but because of the shutdown the information wasn’t available.

“With the Senate stuff that’s clearly stuff that was missed. People went to the polls and wouldn’t have any idea who’s contributing big money to those campaigns,” Allison said.

Allison noted that there other special elections coming up and according to data from a tracker that monitors FEC data indicates “it looks like they electronically filed but if they had wanted to they could’ve avoided that electronic filing as well for those House special races. And in the Senate race it definitely happened. And again, a Senate seat is nothing to sneeze at.”

All things considered, when it comes to the Federal Election Commission and campaign finance, the recent government shutdown could have been much worse.

“To the extent that we think about a biennial or quadrennial cycle this is part way through the first year, an odd numbered year, and many races aren’t even identified yet,” University of Michigan Political Science Professor Michael Traugott, who specializes in campaign finance, told TPM. “And also the activity level is generally low in the odd numbered year compared to the even numbered year. With the exception that there are some candidates who tried to raise money quickly to advertise the size of their war chest and to dissuade serious challengers.”

The FEC, Allison added, was just one of a number of agencies where important government data was not available because of the shutdown.

“It is important to have this information available and it wasn’t just the FEC that was affected, I mean you know shut down, there were all kinds of questions about other data sources,” Allison said. “And you think about the economic statistics that were lost and all the different ways that we measure how government is performing … it’s almost like you’re flying blind when all that shut down.”