The Senate Did Something Good for Campaign Finance Transparency

The Senate Did Something Good for Campaign Finance Transparency

The U.S. Senate might be about to leap forward into the computer era.

After more than a decade of debate and delay, the Senate passed the Senate Campaign Disclosure Act, a bill requiring Senate candidates to file their campaign finance reports electronically. If the bill becomes law, the public will have more timely access to information about who is funding their politicians.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), was included in a measure to fund the legislative branch that was approved Monday in a 86-5 vote.

“Montanans deserve to know who’s funding our elections,” Tester said in a statement. “It’s high time we shine some light on the money flowing into campaigns and bring our election system into the 21st Century.”

The bill will bring the Senate into parity with political committees,candidates for the House of Representatives and the presidency, which have been filing their reports electronically with the Federal Elections Commission since 2001.

Some Senate candidates have begun voluntarily e-filing their FEC reports, but the majority have continued to use a paper-based process that costs the government nearly $1 million annually and slows down public disclosure. Sludge’s Josefa Velasquez described the paper filing process recently:

Currently, Senate campaign committees print their campaign-related reports—which sometimes start out as digital forms—and either mail them or directly hand them to the Secretary of the Senate. Those paper reports—which could be up to hundreds of pages long—are then submitted to the FEC, which then sends the disclosures to an outside contractor that manually enters or scans up to hundreds of pages of data into a digital form for public consumption. The process, depending on how long the reports are, could take weeks or even months to complete, delaying the disclosure reports to the public.  

In previous years, the measure has stalled due primarily to opposition from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has repeatedly stripped the e-filing measure from legislation.

The legislative branch appropriations bill—including the e-file requirement—must be reconciled with the version passed by the House and signed by President Trump before it becomes the law.