Despite millions in potential cost savings to taxpayers, the U.S. Senate has still yet to pass a requirement that it file campaign finance reports electronically.
By Friday, presidential candidates, House candidates, political action committees and super PACs must file their fourth-quarter financial reports with the Federal Election Commission electronically.
Senate campaigns, however, must submit their reports on paper to the secretary of the Senate, where they are scanned and sent to the FEC. The agency then prints the documents, collates them and delivers them to a private contractor to type into an electronic database.
The process costs taxpayers roughly $500,000 a year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. And as a result, it can take weeks or even months for the public to know who is bankrolling senators’ campaigns.
A requirement that senators e-file their campaign finance reports was included in the Senate version of a financial services bill that was folded into the larger budget bill passed earlier this month. However, the e-filing measure didn’t appear in the final budget.
The disappearance disappointed advocates for the practice, such as Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who has championed e-filing legislation. His stand-alone bill requiring Senate e-filing has yet to receive a vote.
Nothing, however, prohibits senators from e-filing voluntarily with the FEC — in addition to filing on paper with the Senate — and an increasing number are doing so. Yet as many as 80 senators are not, including about 20 who backed a bill requiring the practice.
Tester’s bill has 36 co-sponsors — 28 Democrats, six Republicans and two independents. Of those 36 co-sponsors, 22 have not filed past campaign finance reports electronically. And 19 are expected to file the reports due this Friday only in hard copy.
Among them: Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.; and Mark Udall, D-Colo.
“Sen. Grassley is not comfortable filing two reports because the software program is constantly being updated with new data and filing two reports two different ways at two different times could lead to discrepancies,” said Grassley spokeswoman Jill Gerber.
“An electronic filing doesn't help promote transparency if it's not legally accepted and the same info is still taken from the paper copy,” added Dan Head, a spokesman for Enzi.
Udall spokesman Mike Saccone said the senator wants to change the law so that all Senate campaigns must file electronically, but that “until then, his campaign will follow the requirements of existing law.”
Gerber, Head and Saccone nevertheless maintained that their bosses were strong supporters of Tester’s bill.
“There should be one form, one filing,” Gerber said. “Sen. Grassley looks forward to electronic filing.”
Meanwhile, at least three of Tester’s co-sponsors plan to take the e-filing leap this week.
The offices of Democratic Sens. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Ron Wyden of Oregon told the Center for Public Integrity that the campaign finance reports due by Friday would be e-filed.
“In this day and age, it makes sense to file electronically,” said Perry Plumart, a spokesman for Johnson. “There’s no reason not to.”
Whitney Potter, a spokeswoman for Heinrich, said the senator “is an enthusiastic cosponsor” of Tester’s bill.
Officials for the other 16 co-sponsors who don’t e-file did not respond to requests for comment.
In October, 17 senators voluntarily e-filed their previous campaign finance reports, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of FEC records.
Those lawmakers were Tester and Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont.; Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.; Thad Cochran, R-Miss.; John Cornyn, R-Texas; Joe Donnelly, D-Ind.; Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Al Franken, D-Minn.; Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Angus King, I-Maine; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.; Jack Reed, D-R.I.; Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.; Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.
In a statement, Tester told the Center for Public Integrity that “it’s long past time for the Senate to bring its campaign finance reporting into the 21st century.”
Lisa Rosenberg, a government affairs consultant for the Sunlight Foundation, which endorses e-filing, said the opposition doesn’t make sense, especially since most Senate campaigns store their campaign finance data electronically. Submitting the data online would be faster for them, too.
“It’s crazy that it just keeps getting blocked,” Rosenberg said. “Voters deserve to know who’s funding campaigns.”