For years, the Senate has resisted electronic disclosure of campaign finance reports. The House has electronic filing requirements as do presidential candidates, political parties and political action committees. The Senate sticks out as the body out of step with the rest of federal government, if not the modern world.
It seems obvious, in this age of the Internet, that the era of just filing paper copies of reports is over. There are big filing cabinets over at the Federal Election Commission headquarters in Washington stuffed with hard copies of the reports. But news flash to the Senate -- the bricks-and-mortar way of doing business has long ago been supplemented with the 24-hour virtual universe.
The system is anachronistic and insane. Senate candidates file paper copies of the reports with the Senate Office of Public Records, which scans in a digital copy. The FEC gets a copy and sends it to a vendor in Fredericksburg, Va., to key in the data for the FEC database. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, estimates this nonsense costs about $250,000 each year.
Senators Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) have been trying to require electronic disclosure but have been rebuffed for years. In January, their thought was to include this legislative proposal in Senate Bill 1 -- a broad ethics and lobbying bill. But that measure -- controversial because it is calling for more transparency, disclosure and making it harder for lawmakers and their staffers to jump to lobbying -- has been in the slow lane for months.
But no one is on record as opposing electronic disclosure, which would give the public quicker access to the names of donors right before Senate elections. It has just been held hostage as part of bigger fights.
Last March, Feingold and Cochran made a strategic decision and filed the proposal as a separate bill in order to enhance its chances of passage.
The two are the chief sponsors of Senate Bill 223, the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act. It has a bipartisan cast of co-sponsors, including Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the assistant majority leader, and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who is making ethics a central theme of his presidential campaign.
As legislation goes, this one is simple: "To require Senate candidates to file designations, statements, and reports in electronic form."
Under Senate rules, all it takes is one senator to block something, and one did. Back in May, Feinstein appealed to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to help lift the gate. Feinstein said in a letter to McConnell, "To date, the Member or Members on your side who objected to taking up and adopting the bill have not come forward to say why the bill is being held up. This is a simple, straight-forward bill that brings transparency to campaign report filing procedures. There is no public opposition."
McConnell on Tuesday offered a deal discussed on the Senate floor: that the Senate Republicans get the opportunity to offer an amendment to the bill and to debate that amendment, with one hour for both sides.
McConnell has not spelled out what he wants in the amendment.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, "Once we have a chance to review it, we will be able, perhaps, to move forward on this consent request'' and worried that it was a tactic to "muddy the waters" on the pending ethics bill.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said McConnell is for even more transparency than the bill provides. Stewart said McConnell's amendment, whatever it is, won't be designed to be a poison pill -- that is mandating more disclosure requirements aimed at peeling off votes.
Feingold said that's exactly what McConnell is up to -- prescribing a poison pill. "The bottom line is my e-filing bill is as close to a no-brainer as you can get," Feingold said.