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Senators Try Again To Make Disclosure Process Electronic


Nothing about the United States Senate encourages rapid change. The Senate takes the name of a legislature from ancient Rome. Lawmakers go to work in a building more than 200 years old and many members stay in office for decades. Now however, a few senators are trying for change. It's a change in how they disclose campaign contributions and spending. For decades senators used paper forms, not computers.

NPR's Peter Overby reports on the effort to try something new.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The Senate is alone on paper filing. Presidential campaigns and House campaigns haven't done it for years, they file electronically. With a password and a few more keystrokes, their disclosures flow automatically under the Federal Election Commission's public website. In the Senate, abandoning paper is a reform that's been often proposed but never adopted. Now Montana Democrat Jon Tester is pushing for it. For the step-by-step of how senators currently comply with the disclosure law, I called Bob Biersack. He worked on disclosure at the FEC for 30 years. Now he's with the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, a power user of the agency's data. Biersack's basic take?

BOB BIERSACK: Pretty much every step in the process, there are things about the way Senate campaigns file their reports with the FEC that are bizarre and silly.

OVERBY: Bizarre and silly. To start with, every serious Senate campaign uses a computer program to track contributions and spending.

BIERSACK: Sometimes it's something that they got free from the FEC.

OVERBY: But - you knew this was coming - when a disclosure report is due...

BIERSACK: They have to print off on paper all of that information from the database and they have to deliver it either by mail or by hand to the secretary of the Senate.

OVERBY: This report might run 10,000 pages or more. The secretary of the Senate has it scanned. A new copy travels seven blocks to the FEC.

BIERSACK: Then the FEC turns around and prints another copy.

OVERBY: Which goes to a data entry contractor.

BIERSACK: Who then it types the information back into the same kind of database or computer program from which it originally came.

OVERBY: And then the information goes online, days or weeks after it might have. The cost of this rigmarole? Around $400,000 a year. As for Tester's proposal, it's tangled up with one from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He wants to uncap party spending in Senate races. Last night both proposals were down, but not out.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.