Senators Open to E-filing Reports

Posted October 31, 2003 at 5:37pm

Senate procedures for filing campaign finance reports may finally come into the Electronic Age with several key Senators expressing a willingness to retool the way candidates report their financial contributions and expenditures.

Currently, Senate candidates are the only federal politicians required to file reams of paper reports disclosing the activities of their campaign committees. Critics charge that the processing of paper reports takes too long and costs too much money and that candidates could simply file their reports electronically. A law passed in 1999 mandated that House candidates and political action committees file reports electronically with the Federal Election Commission, but the Senate exempted itself from the requirement.

Now, it appears the idea is being embraced by lawmakers representing both ends of the political spectrum.

“The Senate needs to enter the modern era in our procedures and our technology and in our reporting,” said Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss). “We’re going to take a look at it. It is the kind of thing I have been wanting to do.”

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), the panel’s ranking member, expressed a willingness to consider updating the current filing procedures.

“I am not averse to it, but let me think about it,” he said.

But with the clock ticking on the Congressional calendar, the Senate would likely wait until next year to address the matter.

A report earlier this month by the Campaign Finance Institute sharply criticized the chamber’s refusal to institute electronic filing. The institute estimated that the FEC needlessly spends about $100,000 a year of taxpayer dollars to convert the paper information it receives from the Secretary of the Senate, the official filing point for all Senate campaigns. Most candidates are already using software to track their campaign accounts and reports could be transmitted for near-instant public viewing with just a few mouse clicks, according to the report.

It goes on to say the process prevents the release of timely information that voters could use to help make informed decisions about candidates. It takes nearly a month to transform the paper files into an electronic database that allows viewers to easily comb through thousands of entries listing contributions made to candidates. Electronic filing also allows voters to see instantly how candidates spend their campaign money by reporting committee disbursements.

“As a result, while the Senate takes crucial votes in the next days and weeks on such issues as Iraq, energy and Medicare, voters will remain in the dark on key aspects of Senate campaign finance for as long as a month or more,” the CFI study said. “The problem will get even worse a year from now. When voters go to the polls in November 2004, they will have relatively little information from Senate candidate and party disclosure preelection reports covering the critical fundraising months from July through October. From the voter’s perspective, most of these reports might just as well not exist.”

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), a longtime champion of campaign finance reform, described the current system as “antiquated” and said the Senate “should move up into the modern age.” He emphasized keeping the public in the dark far exceeds the $100,000 it costs to key-punch the data. “I think in terms of accessibility of information disclosure it’s worth it,” he said.

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a member of the Rules panel, said he plans to discuss the issue with Lott.

“It sounds to me that if technology allows us to do it in a safe and effective way, we should be able to do it,” Santorum said.

The new campaign finance law requires all federal candidates to file reports at least once every three months. In the second quarter of this year, more than 27,000 pages were filed with the Secretary of the Senate, a relatively light load considering elections will not be held until 2004. Each of those pages was scanned by Senate staffers, who then transmitted the images to the FEC. Those images, however, are often difficult to read and completely inaccessible to the visually impaired.

Once the election agency receives the pictures, two sets of copies are printed out, with one set delivered to a private contractor who converts the information into an electronic format that is downloaded onto the FEC’s Web site. The other set of printed reports is placed in a public reading room.

It costs the government 24 cents to convert each transaction listed in the campaign reports. In the 2001-02 election cycle, there were more than 336,500 transactions.

“It is a lot of money, obviously. It seems like an unnecessary time delay in the electronic age,” said Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.), a member of the Rules Committee. “We ought to be able to function in the modern era.”

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), another Rules panel member, said he “would be supportive” of doing away with paper filings. “I am not sure why we don’t do that,” Chambliss added.

Jason Cohen, president of ILM Corp., the Fredericksburg, Va., firm that has long held the contract for converting FEC paper reports, disagreed with the notion that electronic filing is superior to paper records.

“It’s actually a misnomer as to the cost savings. It is actually costing the taxpayers more by having the candidates file electronically due to the amount of mistakes in the filings themselves. When based on paper, there were more processes and checks in place to catch mathematical errors that are now seeping through the system,” Cohen said in a telephone interview.

Cohen, whose firm employs about 55 people, compared the process to a reporter who publishes a story without a review by editors. “The mistakes are not found and when you are dealing with large filings involving millions of dollars, it is easy to make a $10,000 into $100,000.” The work performed by his firm helps to catch those mistakes, he said.

Still, Cohen conceded that change is likely to come. “I would guess that within the next few years the Senate will adopt electronic filing,” he said, noting that the electronic filing requirement for House candidates and political action committees substantially reduced the amount of work his firm performs on behalf of the FEC.