FEC provides one stop downloading for committee spending data

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The Federal Election Commission has made a single, downloadable file available that includes records of expenditures made by PACs, parties and candidate committees. That’s a big step forward for investigators and political reporters looking to go through PAC spending line by line. Previously, this information was accessible in a timely basis only to the most tech-savvy operators willing to stitch this information together piecemeal from thousands of raw campaign finance reports.

The new file will cover operating expenditures for PACs, candidate committees and parties, and will include the day-to-day expenses that political committees incur, including staff salaries, consulting fees, catering expenses and ad buys by candidates. It doesn’t include ad buys and other independent expenditures made by super PACs and other outside groups — usually ad buys on TV or radio. Independent expenditures are already available in a separate bulk file.

For years the FEC has made campaign contribution data available in giant files that database users could download, but operating expenditures remained much harder to process. The FEC made some operating expenditures available in the same format, but those were limited to spending by candidate committees.

“This data set answers a long-standing request from researchers and others who use our bulk data on a regular basis,” the FEC press office said in an emailed statement. “We often receive queries on such payees as vendors, restaurants, lawyers and other service providers and the data we need to respond to those queries is in this operating expenditures set.”

The new file builds on another important improvement in the FEC’s data processing. Senate candidates as well as the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (as well as PACs that raise very little money) are allowed to file their reports on paper. That has cost taxpayers millions of dollars to pay for the cost of digitizing this information. In recent months, the FEC began letting taxpayers see what they were getting by making the raw digitized data available, although processing this data requires a relatively complex process.

The operating expenditure file will include campaign reports filed electronically as far back as 2003, but will only include paper filings made in October 2005 or later.

Although the digitized filings provide important details, they are only available months after the initial, paper disclosure report is due at the FEC. For example, for the 2014 campaign, the most recent filings for many Senate candidates covers the period through Sept. 30. Because the FEC’s new bulk file is still dependent upon the same digitization process, the details of Senate spending will still be out of date.

The new operating expenditure bulk file omits the street addresses of the payees, even though this information is digitized and available in individual reports. That’s consistent with the FEC’s past practices — the bulk donor file also omits the street addresses. The lack of that information makes it harder for investigators to figure out whether multiple vendors share the same address, which is often a sign that they are related.

The Sunlight Foundation publishes raw operating expenditure files for the current cycle from electronic filers that include street addresses on an ongoing basis here. We plan to expand these to include the complete details from paper filers later this year.

The Center for Responsive Politics provides cleaned up spending data here.

A number of open source software libraries have made handling the raw FEC files much more tractable, most notable FECH, developed primarily by The New York Times. Sunlight’s code for handling these files is available here, and an experimental parser for processing the digitized paper files is being developed here.

This post has been updated with a comment from the FEC’s press office