With all the foot-dragging that has accompanied legislation requiring Senate candidates to disclose campaign finance information electronically--common-sense legislation with no real opposition that comes years after the House entered the digital age--it's an oft-overlooked fact that they can already file electronically if they choose to, and a few do.
Yet of the 41 cosponsors of S. 482, the bill that would require e-filing, only seven senators voluntarily file electronically; the other 34 continue to provide paper disclosure.
The Federal Election Commission has long provided an obscure space on its Web site to publish reports from the handful of senators who opt to file electronically--whether in the interest of transparency, convenience (eliminating the back-and-forth between paper forms and digital records saves resources of campaigns as well as the government) or, in the case of senators who have been spoken out in favor of the legislation, to practice what they preach.
The senators who have used technology to facilitate disclosure without being forced include Russ Feingold, an architect of the modern campaign finance system and the author of the bill--which he has been attempting to pass since 2003. Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Bernie Sanders, Rick Lugar, Pat Leahy, and John Cornyn also filed electronically last election cycle.
Early this decade, as political action committees and House candidates were required to file electronically, Lugar's campaign found that not only were Senate candidates exempted from those mandates, but the Federal Election Commission actually prohibited them from availing themselves of the more efficient filing process.
"It would come up with an error message saying we couldn't do it because we were in the Senate," said spokesman Andy Fisher. "You couldn't post contributions quickly with the FEC, so we had to digitize them on our own Web site," he added, to the great relief of a reporter who had taken to re-typing names from the paper documents for her newspaper. "I think we saved her from carpel tunnel syndrome," Fisher joked. "Finally the FEC set up an account for us, and we were the first ones."
The program is not widely publicized, however, and some in the Senate campaign finance sphere said they were either unaware of its existence or simply had never thought to use it. In response to Sunlight Foundation questions, the office of Thad Cochran said it would begin e-filing.
"Cochran supports [S. 482] and is an original cosponsor, and now that it's been brought to our attention, there's been no reason we won't do it," spokesman Chris Gallegos said.
But in a world where political considerations often compete with policy positions, most of the e-filing bill's sponsors have not availed themselves of the optional filing.
"We are reluctant to file by computer until there is a statute with which a possible opponent must also comply," said Chambliss communications director Bronwyn Lance Chester.
All Senate candidates must disclose the same information, including contributors' names and itemized campaign expenditures. But donors then have to be manually transcribed, delaying disclosure, and expenditures remain confined to scanned images of paper documents, sometimes hundreds of pages long and useful only to those with a large amount of time on their hands--something few reporters have these days.
Senators who file on paper don't face the same level of immediate scrutiny as presidential, House and the few Senate candidates who willingly disclose their records electronically. The e-records make it easy to quickly tally, for example, that in the last two years Cornyn's campaign has spent more than $9,000 at Johnny's Half Shell, a Capitol Hill restaurant popular for fundraisers, and $16,000 at Four Seasons hotels.
Many failed challengers have voluntarily e-filed, and a couple of other senators appear to have flirted with the idea in years past, then abandoned it. Chuck Schumer filed reports in 2003; Sheldon Whitehouse did so in 2005. Schumer is a cosponsor of the bill, as are all those who filed electronically last year except Bernie Sanders.
Some of the benefits of e-filing are negated by Senate rules that currently consider only paper reports to be official, meaning treasurers who disclose with the click of a button through a computer program also have to create a physical printout for delivery to the Senate, which then undergoes the same treatment as those of senators who didn't e-file, said Christian Hilland, a spokesman for the Federal Election Commission.
"The Secretary of the Senate receives the paper reports and they scan them in, then transmit the images electronically to the FEC. We print them out here and send them to an outside vendor, who then enters the information in an electronic format," Hilland said.
That means that by the time last-quarter donors are made public, the election has often long passed, the victor comfortably in office. The legislation stalled last Congressional session after John Roberts inserted what many considered a "poison pill," but it is again on the Senate's calendar.
"There is no good reason why the Senate continues to lag behind House and Presidential campaigns, and political action committees, when it comes to filing campaign finance reports electronically," Feingold said in a statement to Sunlight. "My campaign files our reports electronically, as well as the mandatory paper report, and while e-filing is easier and faster than filing paper reports, most importantly it's a commonsense way to make our electoral system more transparent."
(Download a Sunlight-compiled spreadsheet of available Senate expenditure records here.)