The FEC's Disclosure Data Catalog

Oct 28 2009

The good folks at the Federal Election Commission launched a disclosure data catalog recently, continuing the federal government data catalog trend. And while there are few (if any) people better at explaining campaign finance data than the FEC’s Bob Biersack, the data catalog is a work in progress and has room for improvement.

It should be noted that the FEC has been giving away campaign finance data in bulk form since 1979, and has remained admirably consistent in its approach. Text files stored on FTP servers still work quite well, thank you, and while that system could use some improvements, too, plenty of campaign finance reporters rely on it.

But in launching a new product with new data, the FEC has a chance to really do things right. Take, for example, the definitive listing of leadership PACs, those committees used by politicians to help boost their standings within the party. The new data catalog has a listing of leadership PACs, which sure beats tracking these by hand like I used to do. But it underscores one of the fundamental issues involving FEC data: the lack of an ultimate candidate ID.

Take a look at that list – notice how the “sponsor name” and “affiliated committee name” are interchangeable (and, what’s more, leadership PACs aren’t supposed to be affiliated with an official campaign committee)? The FEC has no single equivalent of the unique committee ID that can exist across multiple election cycles. There is a unique candidate ID, but if a candidate runs for more than one office he or she gets additional candidate IDs, with no easy way to tie them to each other or back to the person.

Until that system exists, it’s difficult to track the full extent of a politician’s campaign finance activity – yes, most of them only run for a single office, but that happenstance is not a pillar of good information management. The consequence is that organizations that want to tie together a politician’s activity need to invent their own ids for doing so, which means duplication and an inability to share across data sources. Now that campaign finance APIs exist, this is a bad idea that needs to be fixed.

Congress itself has a permanent unique ID for members regardless of whether they serve in the House, Senate or both. The FEC should do the same, beginning with the current election cycle and working backwards for current candidates. Might be something worth taking to the FEC’s new data blog.