Stabenow expresses support for Senate e-filing bill

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow supports a bill that would mandate that Senate candidates begin electronically filing campaign finance reports directly with the Federal Election Commission, a spokesman says.

House and presidential candidates have been doing so for nearly 20 years, but most Senate campaign committees, including Stabenow’s, continue to file reports on paper only to the Secretary of the Senate, as required by law.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow

Critics point out that paper filing of reports costs taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and translates to a lag of days or even weeks between when the reports are filed and the availability of information on the funders of candidates’ campaigns.

Stabenow’s statement of support came after she received a letter this month signed by 21 groups urging her to co-sponsor the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act, introduced by Sens. John Tester, D-Montana, and Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi.

The groups included liberal, conservative and good-government organizations, such as the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Judicial Watch, Demand Progress Action, Take Back Our Republic and the Sunlight Foundation.

“In an age of smartphones, social media and cloud computing, it’s absurd that Senate candidates are still required, by law, to file paper documents to detail their fund-raising and expenditures,” reads the letter, coordinated by the advocacy group Issue One.

“Virtually all Senate candidates presently maintain electronic databases of their donations and expenditures. Yet, instead of being able to electronically submit this information to the government, campaigns must print paper reports that are then either mailed or hand-delivered to the Secretary of the Senate.”

Senate employees scan the paper reports and send them to the FEC, which hires contractors to convert the reports back into digital format.

The FEC estimated earlier this year that the Senate’s paper-based system costs taxpayers $876,000 a year.

Tester, who has introduced his bill every session of Congress since 2003, has accused the Senate of clinging to a “redundant and wasteful” system. He has previously blamed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, for blocking the proposal. McConnell objected to passing the bill by unanimous consent.

Sen. Gary Peters, a Democrat from Bloomfield Township, is a co-sponsor of Tester’s bill. Peters is also among 20 senators who voluntarily files his campaign documents electronically with the FEC, and they become available on the FEC website shortly after they are filed.

The official copy of the reports is still what is submitted to the Secretary of the Senate.

While Stabenow supports Tester’s bill, she has not committed to co-sponsoring his bill or voluntarily e-filing her campaign reports.

“We’ve seen no reason why any senator shouldn’t sponsor this common-sense bill. There’s a number of Republicans, Democrats and independents who have taken a stand by sponsoring it,” said Michael Beckel, research director of Issue One, a nonpartisan organization focused on transparency, accountability and ethics issues in Washington.

“We encourage all senators, including Sen. Stabenow, to co-sponsor this legislation.”

Stabenow’s Republican challengers — retired Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bob Young and businessman John James — filed their third-quarter reports by paper, though James’ campaign provided a copy of his full report electronically when requested by a reporter.

James “supports requiring Senators and Senate candidates to file contribution reports online because although computers may not have been around when Debbie Stabenow started her career in politics, it’s time we use modern transparency tools to hold our elected leaders accountable,” said Tori Sachs, James’ campaign manager.

The e-file provision was recently included in the Senate Appropriations bill for the legislative branch for the 2018 fiscal year, though some supporters are concerned that leaders might strip it out.

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