Senate Gets Electronic Filing Measure

Posted November 18, 2003 at 6:35pm

Legislation introduced this week would require Senate candidates to file campaign reports electronically, providing instantaneous public disclosure of money trails that have been buried in piles of costly paper reports.

The measure, introduced by the Senate’s two leading campaign finance reform champions — Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) — would bring the Senate in line with the electronic filing requirements already in place for House candidates and political action committees.

The concept has already been embraced by Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who said he expects to take up the issue next year.

McCain and Feingold argued that electronic filing would save some $100,000 a year that the Federal Election Commission now spends to convert tens of thousands of pages from paper forms. Ironically, most Senate campaigns already use software that enables electronic filing but still file their reports on paper, according to a recent report by the Campaign Finance Institute.

“It is time for the Senate to relinquish its Luddite attitude toward campaign finance disclosure,” Feingold said in a floor statement on the bill Monday.

“The United States Senate is special in many ways. I am proud to serve here. But there is no justification for not making our campaign finance information as readily accessible to the public as the information filed by House candidates or others,” Feingold said.

The legislation would require Senate candidates to file campaign reports electronically with the Secretary of the Senate, which has been the traditional filing point for the chamber. That office would be required to forward the reports within 24 hours to the FEC, which in turn would be required to post the reports on its Web site within 24 hours.

Theoretically, the change could be implemented with a modification in Senate rules, a task that would likely face less difficulty than moving legislation that must be passed by both chambers and signed by the president. McCain told Roll Call that both routes were considered but “the experts told me this was the best way to go.”

A Senate aide who worked on the legislation said the idea was to get something moving as quickly as possible. “If we can do this within Senate rules, fine,” the aide said.

McCain emphasized the benefit to voters of quick, accessible information.

“Voters will no longer have to go through the time-consuming process of reading pages and pages filed by Senate candidates or Senate party committees to figure out the major donors and their employers, and the major recipients of campaign spending,” McCain said. “Instead, they can download a filed report from the FEC Web site onto their personal computers and quickly locate the information they need. This creates effective public disclosure.”

Lott, following up comments he made to Roll Call earlier this month, told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Nov. 5 that he favors the electronic filing of campaign reports.

“People say, well, wait a minute, we don’t want people being able to get that quick an access. Look, what are you — who are you trying to keep secret? That’s part of honesty in elections, I think. Make it accessible. So we are looking at some things in the rules that we can change that will help the leadership to do a better job and make the institution look better and run better,” Lott said.

Lott indicated he plans to review all Senate rules next year. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), the ranking Democrat on the Rules panel, also said he was willing to look at changes to the Senate’s filing requirements.

No Senator has come out publicly against the concept of switching from paper filing, but several sources speculated that Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) may prove to be an obstacle because of his traditionalist approach to senate procedures. His office declined to comment.

While McCain called the Senate’s failure to require electronic filing “unconscionable,” the idea was never even mentioned during the Senate’s lengthy consideration of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2001.

Mark Preston contributed to this report.