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U.S. Senate Could Save Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars If It Files Campaign Finance Reports Electronically, Says The FEC

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Friday, February 17 2012

One little-noted item in President Obama's budget proposal this week was a recommendation to require U.S. senators to file their campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Commission electronically. The FEC estimates that the switch from paper to bits would save it $430,000 annually.

Yes -- you read that right: While all other politicians running for office have to file their campaign finance reports electronically, senators and their party committees do not.

The electronic filing requirements are a result of Republican-sponsored legislation enacted in the early nineties, but U.S. senators managed to exempt themselves from the requirement at the time. Since then, there have been persistent attempts to close the loophole, but just somehow the legislative efforts keep getting dropped.

The latest case of the U.S. Senate weaseling out of electronic filing came last week when it voted to approve the STOCK Act, legislation that would ban members of congress and all other federal employees from trading on political intelligence that would give them an edge over anyone else in the stock market.

One of the amendments to the legislation offered by Sen. Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, and Thad Cochran, Republican of Mississippi, would have finally brought their colleagues into parity with everyone else. But again, the Senate failed to adopt the amendment.

The Sunlight Foundation has written a letter to Senate leaders demanding to know why the amendment failed to be adopted.

Meanwhile, Tester has sponsored S. 219, the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act, a stand-alone bill that would enact the requirement. The bill currently has bipartisan list of 22 co-sponsors and has to make it through the Senate Rules Committee.

As Bob Biersack, a fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics notes, the impact of the senators not filing electronically goes beyond paying clerks by the hour to manually scan in the information. It also impacts the accuracy of the information about the senators' campaign contributions because changes and corrections to original filings often come in the form of letters instead of updated, corrected versions of the original forms that reflect the full picture of senators' campaign finances.

"The commission has spent millions accommodating the need to deal with these paper filings," he told me.

In the big scheme of things $430,000 isn't a huge amount of money, but that perspective changes when you focus on the fact that it's being spent to promote inefficiency and the obscuration of important information about where senators' campaign finances are coming from.

This post has been corrected to accurately reflect Sen. Jon Tester's party affiliation.

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