Ignorance is bliss

Two supposed champions of open government are pushing hard to keep campaign finance records off the Internet. What don't they want you to know?

In 1997, a trio of consumer groups with an agenda to embarrass legislators set out to prove what everyone around the Capitol had long suspected: The business interests that lobby state legislators are also the chief contributors to their campaigns.

The groups deployed teams of college students to sift through stack upon stack of paper reports detailing the tens of thousands of campaign donations made to the 150 members of the Texas House of Representatives during the previous two years. Armed with hard numbers to back them up, the groups reached a stinging conclusion: The Legislature was indebted to those who routinely ask for special favors.

Of the $14.6 million in contributions, $9 million came from political action committees and businesses, such as the hired-gun law firms that lobby the Legislature on behalf of big business clients ranging from chemical companies to HMOs. To make matters bleaker, the $9 million did not even include all of the donations from individual business executives or the lobbyists themselves.

The consumer groups issued their findings in a report with a snippy, snappy, yet suitable title: "Mortgaged House."

If legislators were chagrined by the report, they hid their shame well. They could not, however, mask their outrage. During a special House committee hearing on campaign finance reform that occurred the week "Mortgaged House" was released in January 1998, legislators picked apart the report line by line, questioning its methodology, its assumptions, and, mostly, its conclusion. They were especially piqued at how personal it got. The report detailed not only what percentage of each House member's total came from PACs and businesses, but also what percentage came from outside the legislator's home district.

They found that bit of information particularly misleading. Rep. Steve Wolens of Dallas pointed out that if he had contributed to his own campaign, the check would have had an address from his downtown Dallas law office, and therefore the contribution would have been counted as originating from outside his district. Other legislators on the panel knew Wolens had a good point, and they gleefully piled on as an official of one of the three consumer groups sat helpless before them in the witness chair.

By obsessing on the parts of "Mortgaged House" in which the authors were guilty of overreaching, legislators effectively disregarded the report's sound hypothesis: The Texas Legislature has strayed from its purpose of representing average citizens.

It seems the only message that got through to many House members is that having their campaign contributions analyzed too closely poses a huge menace.

Now some of those same folks who produced the report are asking legislators to make it easy for any Texan to do a similar analysis of campaign contributions. Legislators will debate bills this session that would require all state officeholders and candidates, including legislators, and PACs to submit their contribution reports by computer diskette, modem, or other means of electronic transfer. Current law requires only that the reports be filed on paper with the Texas Ethics Commission, which warehouses them in its Austin offices. That makes the reports difficult and often expensive to obtain. It also makes it nearly impossible to analyze contributions in a way that exposes patterns and trends.

If a mandatory electronic filing bill passes, however, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection would be able to access all contribution reports at the click of a mouse and almost as soon as the commission receives them. Anyone, of course, includes government watchdog groups and the media, which, in effect, would get a jump start in routinely running the type of computer-aided analyses that resulted in the "Mortgaged House" report.

The menace would multiply. It's no wonder some legislators now are the ones guilty of overreaching in dreaming up excuses for why the bill should die.

The legislator most determined to kill the bill is Rep. Debra Danburg, a Houston Democrat serving her 19th year in the House. Danburg has made a career of marketing herself as someone who goes to Austin to fight for the causes of common folks against great odds, a legislator who consistently votes to protect the abused and the neglected against the will of the influential elite and who favors removing the shrouds of government so the public can know what's really going on at their Capitol.

In 1996, she won an award for being a real trouper in backing the advocates of campaign finance reform. But today, as chairwoman of the House Elections Committee, Danburg vows to use her influence to submarine the mandatory electronic filing bill that those same advocates consider the cornerstone of any meaningful reform.

Danburg's transformation from ally to turncoat is all the more puzzling because she is sponsoring bills this session that would require candidates to disclose more information on their campaign finance reports, such as the occupation and employer of particularly generous donors. At least one consumer advocate is scratching his abundantly bald head.

"She is one of the people we generally rely on the most to do the right things in the House," says Tom Smith, Texas director of Public Citizen, a consumer group founded by Ralph Nader and one of the groups behind "Mortgaged House." (The other two were Texans for Public Justice and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.) Smith is so familiar to legislators that even those who consider him a burr on their backside address him by his nickname, "Smitty."

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