Another Snag for Electronic-Filing Bill

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2007

The Senate appears deadlocked over legislation that would require members to file their campaign finance forms electronically -- the method used by their House counterparts, presidential candidates and the majority of state lawmakers.

Instead of submitting forms electronically, senators print their reports and deliver them to the clerk's office. The staff there scans them into a computer and transmits them electronically to the Federal Election Commission. The FEC then prints the forms again and hires workers to type the information into a database so they can be made public online.

The practical result is that it can take months for Senate campaign filings to become publicly available. Names of donors to a particular campaign often will not be known until long after Election Day has come and gone.

Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), the chief sponsor of the legislation, has called the costly and time-consuming process "absurd," and he appears to have agreement from the vast majority of the Senate. But in the Senate, appearances can be deceiving.

When Feingold's legislation first arrived on the floor for a vote in April, an unknown Republican senator turned to an antiquated tradition and put a hold on the bill. When new ethics rules passed this summer that prohibited such "anonymous holds," Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) stepped in the way of the bill.

Ensign said he does not object to the legislation itself. His spokesman said he simply wants it amended to include an unrelated provision that would require groups that file ethics complaints against senators to disclose the identities of those who support them financially.

"Right now, there are no requirements. Anyone can file a complaint, and they can do it anonymously," said Tory Mazzola, a spokesman for Ensign. "In the same spirit of transparency, he wants a vote on this."

Supporters of the electronic-filing bill say Ensign's amendment is a ploy. Howard Gantman, Democratic staff director of the Senate Rules Committee, called it a "poison pill."

"It's thoroughly unrelated, and there are serious questions from some groups whether this would create a disincentive to the public to filing ethics complaints," Gantman said.

Democrats offered Ensign an opportunity to offer his amendment in committee. But Mazzola said the offer amounted to a "backdoor way to kill an amendment," adding: "Senator Ensign is looking for an up-or-down vote."

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has not publicly voiced opposition to the bill, but campaign finance reform advocates suspect he is the real force behind the effort to bottle up the Feingold bill. Frustrated with the lack of movement in the Senate, one advocacy group, the Sunlight Foundation, sponsored billboard advertising in Kentucky for the Web site, which criticizes him for blocking electronic filing.

Still, the advocates, who have been lobbying hard for the bill for several years, said they are at a loss to identify a way out of this predicament.

"It's stuck between a rock and a hard place," said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation. "There's no negotiation because this is a ridiculous amendment on its face. It's really stopped it dead in its tracks."

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