USA Today – Senate considers entering digital age for campaign filings

The U.S. Senate may soon enter the modern world for electronic campaign filings, ending a cumbersome process that has burdened taxpayers with unnecessary costs and obscured timely transparency on Senate candidates’ fundraising.

Every candidate for federal office, including the U.S. House and the presidency, must file electronic disclosure reports with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which makes the quarterly data available to the public in almost real time.

“Senate candidates, however, remain willfully in the dark ages,” said Paul Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, at a Wednesday hearing before the Senate Rules Committee on a bill by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., to require Senate candidates to follow suit and file electronically and directly to the FEC. That would put all federal candidates on the same playing field for disclosure.

Currently, Senate candidates submit their quarterly disclosures on paper to the Office of the Secretary of the Senate, which in turn scans the paperwork and e-mails it to the FEC. The commission then sends the data to an outside contractor, which manually enters the data into an electronic database to send back to the FEC to make it publicly available.

“Citizens are unable to view Senate candidate campaign finance information for weeks or even months after the data is filed,” Tester told the committee. “We expect to know what our elected officials are up to and who they are raising money from.”

If enacted, Tester’s bill could be implemented almost immediately and at almost no cost. There is already near-universal usage of software by Senate campaigns to track campaign finance data. For most campaigns, it’s just a matter of sending an e-mail, a process similar to how many Americans e-file their taxes to the Internal Revenue Service.

President Obama called for electronic disclosures for Senate campaigns in his 2013 budget as a cost-cutting measure. The FEC estimates that electronic filings would save the agency $430,000 annually.

Senate Rules Committee Chairman Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the legislation is “a no-brainer” to end a process that has been “cumbersome, wasteful, and time consuming.”

The legislation has at least 24 co-sponsors and bipartisan support from six Republican senators. Past efforts to move similar legislation have faltered because the bill became a target for unrelated legislation that sunk it, or because anonymous holds were placed on the bill.

Schumer said he was working with Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the committee’s top Republican, to get the bill out of committee. “I believe this legislation is something we can get behind,” he said.

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