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Editorial: Just Do It

Senate Should File Electronically — Saving Money, Time, Reputation

Here we go again. Campaign finance reports for the fourth quarter of 2010 were due to be filed Jan. 31 — and those from House Members, the Republican and Democratic parties and all their campaign committees were instantly posted on the Web.

But not the Senate’s.

In 2000, the Senate exempted itself from the responsibility to digitally file campaign fundraising and spending reports, and all efforts to rectify this silly, antique and expensive exemption have failed.

This year, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) has taken up the cause, along with Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). In the new spirit of bipartisanship now prevailing in the Capitol — as witness the “gentlemen’s agreement” on Senate rules — we would hope the legislation would be swiftly approved by the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and passed into law.

Here’s how the system works now. Senators (and Senate candidates) use Federal Election Commission software to compile their reports. But instead of firing them off electronically to the FEC for posting, they print them out and use snail mail to send them to the Secretary of the Senate.

After the Secretary of the Senate gets the paper reports, her office scans them — thousands of pages worth — and sends them electronically to the FEC.

But wait, they’re not done yet. The FEC then has to hire a contractor to transfer the data into digital form for final posting. The whole process has been estimated to cost $250,000 a year — a total waste.

And in the meantime, the data can’t be searched, say, for connections between donors and positions Senators may have taken on issues.

Except in cases where Senators voluntarily release their reports directly, the media and watchdog groups have to go to the Secretary of the Senate’s office and comb through the reports by hand to get the data.

In our own case, Roll Call wanted especially to see what kind of money potential Senate retirees had raised. With effort, we got the information — most of it, anyway — into Thursday’s paper.

One exception was Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), whose office refused to provide his report on paper, and it was unavailable in the Secretary of the Senate’s office. It finally appeared on the FEC website last weekend.

We urge change not just for journalistic convenience. The current system is a bureaucratic mess that violates both parties’ pledges to reform government and save the taxpayers’ money.

In introducing the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act, Tester emphasized transparency as his main point. “By law, the public has a right to know who’s funding political campaigns. … But it’s not real transparency when folks have to wait up to a month to get that information,” he said.

We concur in that argument. But we would also add that it’s time for the Senate to move fully into the 21st century — and reduce the federal deficit (a little) at the same time.

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