Tester wants online filing

Great Falls Tribune

by Malia Rulon Herman

Spending reports get to public faster

WASHINGTON – Even though most services are now online, from bank statements to brokerage accounts, members of the U.S. Senate continue to file campaign finance reports the old fashioned way: on paper.

This practice leads to delays in the information being made available to the public, renders them electronically unsearchable and costs the U.S. government an estimated $500,000 a year to process. Sen. Jon Tester wants to change that. The Montana Democrat has introduced a bill that would require Senate candidates to file their quarterly campaign finance reports electronically with the Federal Election Commission.

“This commonsense bill allows folks to know right away who’s funding political campaigns and reflects the accountability and transparency Montanans expect from our elected officials and candidates for public office,” Tester said.

Tester and at least a dozen other U.S. senators – out of 100 members of the Senate – already file their reports electronically. But they are in the minority. The majority of senators continue to file on paper.

Under campaign finance rules, reports must be either hand-delivered or mailed to the secretary of the Senate by the FEC’s quarterly deadlines. Mailed reports take longer to process because they must first go through the Senate’s off-site mail processing facility in Vir­ginia.

When they arrive at the Senate Office of Public Records on Capitol Hill, they are scanned in page-by-page and electronically transmitted to the FEC, which has 48 hours to post a copy on its site.

That means even though reports are postmarked by the FEC deadline, they often don’t actually reach the FEC until a week or two after the deadline.

But the work isn’t done. The FEC then transmits the paper report to an off-site contracting firm to input the information into electronic form. It then goes back to the FEC for coding and uploading so it can be added to searchable databases maintained by the FEC.

All this handling means that it can take anywhere from three weeks to several months for these campaign finance reports to be available to the public.

Ironically, the FEC already provides lawmakers with free software to electronically prepare their campaign finance reports. But while many use the software to complete their reports, they still print them out and submit them in paper form.

Tester said that’s unacceptable. Presidential and House candidates already file campaign finance reports electronically, a requirement that has been in place since 2001.

“It’s 2013 and high-time for the Senate to bring its campaign finance reporting into the 21st century,” he said.

Sen. Max Baucus, DMont., agreed. He’s one of 27 co-sponsors of Tester’s bill. Baucus plans to begin filing electronically starting this year, a spokeswoman said.

“We have a responsibility to make every effort to bring more sunlight and accountability to our elections. Add to that streamlining government and saving taxpayer dollars and this bill is a nobrainer,” Baucus said.

Ellen Miller, co-founder and executive director of the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, said Tester’s bill would be an important step in creating greater transparency. Her group and others are promoting bills like Tester’s this week as part of Sunshine Week, a national initiative designed to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.

“Following an election year that saw more than $6 billion in political contributions, ensuring electronic accountability for who finances campaigns is needed now more than ever,” she said.

Tester’s Senate race last year against Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg was one of the nation’s most expensive races. Rehberg, who as a U.S. House member was already used to filing electronically, filed his Senate campaign finance reports online as well.

Tester introduced a similar measure in the last Congress and, while it didn’t receive a vote, it was the topic of a Senate Rules Committee hearing last April.