In Digital Finance Race, Senate Uses Horse And Buggy

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"Follow the money." That's the mantra of modern political coverage, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates of campaign cash.

Checking a candidate's contributors has become critical for understanding the candidate's politics. It's also easier than ever before with regular deadlines and electronic records — unless the legislator you are tracking is a member of the U.S. Senate.

For more than a decade now, the Senate has kept itself exempt from rules other federal candidates must follow.

Old-School Disclosure

Say you decided to run for office. Of course, you'd have to keep track of the money your campaign takes in and the money it spends.

The government keeps pretty close tabs on those numbers at the Federal Election Commission. So, somebody in your campaign office would carefully enter that data into a spreadsheet, updating it daily with new information.

Now, if you were running for president or a seat in the House of Representatives, every few months you'd have to report all those numbers to the FEC.

So, you'd pull it up on the computer and zap it over.

But if you were running for the U.S. Senate, the process is ... well ... one that the former engineer and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Rube Goldberg himself could not have made up.

You'd pull up your campaign records on your computer, and then you would print them. Next, you would grab the FEC report form and have an administrative assistant fill it out, with a typewriter. You'd then gather up the pages, usually numbering in the hundreds or thousands, and walk them down to the Office of the Secretary of the Senate. The secretary of the Senate would scan these pages into computers and then email them to the FEC.

At this point, it would be possible for a reporter to sit at a terminal in an office in a Senate building and look over your forms, but since they'd be scanned in, the data wouldn't be searchable — not terribly useful.

When the FEC got the scan of your documents, it would print them, box them up and ship them to a government contractor in Fredericksburg, Va.

There, workers would manually key in the data from your forms into spreadsheets — like the ones the data originally came from — and then those would be emailed back to the FEC, which would then post them on its website.

That's the way the process works. It can be weeks before reporters, government watchdogs and, most important, voters are able to see what's going on inside a Senate campaign.

Push To File Electronically

If a primary or general election happened during those weeks?

It's not very useful. And — one other thing — the cost to taxpayers of repeatedly printing and scanning and shipping and entering these data is some $450,000 every year.

"This is, like, not moving into the 21st century. I mean, this is like farming with a horse and a plow," says Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat. Tester has introduced a bill to change all this and make Senate candidates file electronically, just like other federal candidates do. "We have opportunities to improve the process, and I think it's a no-brainer. We ought to do it," he says.

A Senate committee will consider Tester's legislation this week, and it appears to have support.

"It's very hard for us to understand who could oppose this, and what could their reason for doing so possibly be," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., praising the idea to her fellow senators five years ago.

But oppose it they did — in 2007, when it came to the floor for a vote, again in 2009, and again earlier this year.

Who keeps blocking it?

Well, that's unclear. Democrats and even some Republican senators blame Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., but his spokesman tells NPR he has always supported electronic filing.

Whoever blocked it in the past will get another chance to explain why in the coming weeks as the Senate mulls over the latest attempt to enter the 21st century.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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