A Senate of Luddites
Today marks the deadline for Capitol Hill lawmakers to file their third-quarter campaign finance disclosures with the Federal Election Commission, but don’t look for any immediate news from the Senate filings. That’s because, unlike House lawmakers, who since 2001 have been required to file electronically, Senate lawmakers have to file paper forms, which have to be scanned before the FEC can post them online. That process might make some sense if the lawmakers kept those records on paper originally, but of course they don’t.
Here’s our description of the convoluted process from a year ago:
Under current rules, Senate offices must print out their campaign finance reports, which lawmakers store electronically, and mail them to the Sec. of the Senate on Capitol Hill (the reports must be postmarked, though not received, by the specific deadline). The Sec. of the Senate then scans them and emails the digitalized versions to the Federal Election Commission. The FEC posts the non-searchable images online, but also prints another set of hard copies, which are driven to the offices of a government contractor in Virginia; the contractor then keys the information back into the computer in its final, searchable form.
The process takes between four to six weeks, experts say, and costs taxpayers roughly $250,000 per year.
A Senate bill would force the upper chamber to adopt the electronic filing requirement, but it’s been blocked in recent years by Republicans attaching controversial amendments. The delay has driven campaign finance reformers up the wall, and left many political experts scratching their heads in disbelief that lawmakers could be so slow to adapt to the digital age.
That sentiment was summarized nicely in a statement from Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, testifying before Congress in 2007. “Whatever the rationale for the Senate exemption (institutional pride?),” Mann said, “it has produced a set of ridiculous practices that serve no legitimate public or private interest.”