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The documents travel a circuitous route from the secretary of the Senate to the FEC, then to an outside contractor for data entry, and back again to the FEC for uploading. The whole process takes up to two months, so donations made in the final quarter of an election often cannot be searched until the race is over.
Not to mention the exorbitant cost: The Office of Management and Budget estimates that paper filing costs taxpayers $430,000 a year — no small sum when sequestration has forced painful cuts in areas from medical research to public parks. Both the secretary of the Senate and the FEC endorse the switch. Even President Barack Obama called for Senate electronic filing in his annual budget request this year.
“We have never found a senator, including McConnell, who publicly opposes this legislation as it stands,” said Lisa Rosenberg, government affairs consultant with the Sunlight Foundation. “No one does. We have the votes. It’s just procedurally challenging to get it to happen.”
Absent a legislative remedy, the Sunlight Foundation is urging senators to at least follow the lead of Tester and about a dozen of his Senate colleagues, who voluntarily submit their campaign finance reports electronically. Tester has gone one step further and posts his daily schedule online, including all meetings with lobbyists — something the Sunlight Foundation also promotes.
Tester said his bill “will save taxpayer money, and hold the Senate to the same level of accountability that folks around here are demanding from others.” He’s hopeful that the Rules Committee will take it up again soon, and that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, another backer, will bring it to a vote by unanimous consent.
The question, of course, will be whether senators prove willing to act on the transparency principles they talk about so much these days. Noted Holman: “If we can get a vote, we’ll see whether there are enough senators who are embarrassed enough to do the right thing.”
Eliza Newlin Carney is a senior staff writer covering political money and election law for CQ Roll Call.