The FEC site links to a database containing all reported contributions of $200 or more to candidates by political parties or political action committees (PACs) since 1993.
The online reports, which have been scanned from paper copies, are searchable by company or individual names. The documents also can be searched by a subject, such as "technology," but the results will only contain entities with that term in their name. And donations made to Senate races are not available, as such campaigns file with the Secretary of the Senate instead of the FEC.
Computerizing and posting campaign filings online is one of the most notable Net trends. Proponents of the so-called digital sunshine movement say it not only makes finance records easier to search and dissect, but it also eliminates the barrier of citizens having to physically travel to government agencies in order to access such records.
"We're hoping that one of these days, we can have everything at the fingertips for the public," said Ron Harris, a spokesman for the FEC.
The commission was required to create the new site under an amendment to the Federal Election Campaign Act approved by President Clinton in 1995. During a two-year election cycle, the FEC receives up to 50,000 campaign contribution reports, which range in size from two to 600 pages.
Once the hard-copy files are scanned, they are automatically indexed, and will then be made available on the Net, which can take up to six weeks. If more committees and candidates used the FEC's software program to file electronically, the reports would get posted online much quicker, according to FEC statistician Bob Biersack, who works on the project.
"We are sure working in that direction. Now it can be done by disc, but it's voluntary," he said. "In February, we'll have two processes for directly transmitting the reports through a dial-up network. Ultimately, we think the best kind of disclosure of these reports is one that is fully computerized."
However, a browser-based filing system is not yet in the works, he added.
A handful of state agencies have led the nationwide charge to post campaign contributions online, and to let candidates file reports directly over the Net or using other computer systems. (See related story)
But as with the FEC site, online contribution sites are only useful if the information is complete and searchable using numerous indicators, says Tony Raymond, Webmaster for the Center for Responsive Politics, who worked at the FEC for 17 years.
"That they've put the report images online is great. This is still a big step forward," he said today. "Still, some of the reports are several hundred pages, and the way they have it set up now, you have to go through every page to get to the end.
"Right now only nine committees are voluntarily filing electronically. But there are 9,000 registered committees," he added.
A nonpartisan, nonprofit site launched by Raymond more than a year ago gives users some of that flexibility. It lists donations by state and contains "soft-money" contribution listings, which don't go to individual candidates, but rather to partisan groups. The site also contains data from the FEC through the current year.
For example, according to Raymond's site, last year Microsoft donated $10,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and $30,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee. The FEC site only reflects the total $9,000 the giant software maker gave to individual candidates in 1997.
"I've always been a believer in disclosure. Taxpayers are paying to collect this data; we should make it available for free," Raymond said.