FEC will accept finance reports on line--sort of

Congress has directed the Federal Election Commission to accept
campaign finance reports on line beginning Jan. 1, and the commission plans to comply with
the letter of the law.


After it gets the reports, however, FEC will print them and handle them as if they were
submitted on paper. The cost to receive and print the first year's reports: $200,000.


The data will not be integrated with FEC's databases for at least a year because the
commission lacks time and money to build a full-fledged electronic filing system by the
Jan. 1 deadline. That deadline was established in an amendment to the Federal Election
Campaign Act signed into law in December.


About 8,000 campaign committees file reports with the commission. Commissioner Scott E.
Thomas, chairman of the FEC Finance Committee, estimated that initially about 550 campaign
committees will consider filing electronically.


FEC officials predicted that it will be years before most campaign committees take full
advantage of electronic filing. Meanwhile, the commission plans to have a complete
electronic filing system at work by January 1999.


Even with the scaled-back goal, implementing a system capable of accepting all types of
reports by Jan. 1 will be a major undertaking, said Richard Hooper, director of FEC's Data
Systems Development Division.


The new law also requires House candidates to file campaign reports directly with FEC
rather than with the clerk of the House of Representatives. The agency has been accepting
the reports since January and plans to spend $500,000 by May to handle the new files.


FEC is asking for $3.3 million for systems in its 1997 budget request, more than double
the $1.5 million requested this year. Annual IT spending is expected to grow to $4.6
million by 2001, according to a six-year strategic systems plan the commission adopted
this month.


The speed-up dictated by the law left commissioners worried that money to build and
maintain the required systems might not be forthcoming in the out years. "We are
nervous about getting into it and having our funding cut off," Thomas said.


FEC officials have met with systems staffs at the Republican and Democratic national
committees, but their systems are such a complex patchwork of incompatible computers that
the committees probably won't be on-line filing pioneers, Thomas said.


FEC has tinkered with electronic filing for several years, but the projects have been
small ones. For the last two presidential campaigns, the commission has accepted
electronic information to assist in campaign audits, and last year it began accepting
electronic images of contributors' checks on CD-ROM to qualify candidates for federal
matching campaign funds [GCN, Sept. 14, 1995, Page 1].


After determining that rolling out a complete electronic filing system in less than a
year would be impossible, the commission agreed to develop the system in four phases.


The first phase will be creation of the prototype system for receiving the reports on
line by the first of the year. Hooper said there probably will be several software
development contracts, and a third party may process the data for the commission.


"I don't know if I want to have that processing in-house," he said. "We
might be better served to have somebody receive that data, process it and then feed it to
us in a format that we can take advantage of."


In the final phase, the system should accommodate all potential filers by January 1999
and will be used by all FEC offices. The commission estimates the total cost for
developing and maintaining the system through fiscal 2001 at $8 million.


Starting electronic filing during a presidential election year likely will interfere
with another FEC systems project: the final shift of the agency's records system from a
mainframe platform to a new client-server network. The commission had planned to shut down
the mainframe this year.


"We will have to delay somewhat the implementation of the PC-based system for some
parts of the agency unless we can get a supplemental appropriation," Thomas said.


FEC's old computer system consists of a VAX 6310 mainframe from Digital Equipment Corp.
with dumb terminals on desks. In late 1994, FEC began replacing these with 486 and Pentium
PCs from Dell Computer Corp. The PCs are being bought through General Services
Administration schedule contracts.


The new PC network has an Alpha 2100 XL233 file server from Digital running Microsoft
Corp.'s Windows NT. The agency was planning to replace the mainframe with an Alpha VME2100
2/275 this month. The commission has bought about half of the estimated 320 PCs needed.
The rest were to be bought this fiscal year.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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