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Disclosure Bill Tops FEC’s Legislative Agenda

The Federal Election Commission last week delivered to President Bush and the Democratic-controlled Congress its 2007 legislative wish list, a melange of technical fixes and one broad stroke that appears to already have stoked GOP skepticism.

Headlining the agency’s recommendations is a proposal requiring Senatorial campaign committees to file their campaign finance documents electronically.

Senate campaigns now file hard copies of their campaign finance disclosure statements with the Secretary of the Senate. The Secretary then forwards the documents to the FEC, which contracts with an outside company to convert the documents into an electronic format, an additional $250,000-per-year step that also adds weeks to the process of culling the reports and making them available to the public.

“A Senate filing often consists of thousands of pages, and data from the filings themselves take up to 30 days to be integrated into the commission’s searchable database,” according to the agency’s recommendations. “If such reports were electronically filed, the data could be integrated within a few days.”

Political action committees and House and presidential candidates are already required to file electronic versions of their campaign documents with the commission. In late March, the Senate Rules and Administration Committee approved a bill that would shore up the Senate exemption. And with apparent bipartisan, overwhelming support for its passage, Senate Democrats pushed two weeks ago to “hotline,” or fast-track, the bill.

But as of late last week, the bill was still pending. Democratic leadership aides said no one on their side, at least, had raised objections to passing the measure by unanimous consent. Skeptical Republicans, however, appear to be staying mum.

“It has cleared the majority side,” Rules spokesman Howard Gantman said in an e-mail late last week. “We are still waiting for word back from the minority side.”

Senate Republicans declined to comment on the status of the bill. As of late Friday, the measure had 34 bipartisan co-sponsors.

The agency also recommends broadening the definition of who is subject to certain election-related fraud statues. The FEC said it has seen an uptick in fraud cases involving outside groups and individuals masquerading as someone else. The panel recommends that the definition be expanded “to encompass all persons purporting to act on behalf of candidates and real or fictitious political committees and political organizations.”

“The narrow scope of the existing language does not bar fraudulent misrepresentation or solicitation on behalf of a corporate or union separate segregated fund or a non-connected political entity,” the FEC’s letter to Congress reads.

The agency unanimously voted 5-0 to recommend that Congress tweak the statute to require that campaigns list their FEC identification number on committee-to-committee checks, as well as those for political committees that receive committee-to-committee contributions.

“PACs and campaign committees themselves [appear] to have some difficulty accurately and consistently identifying other committees involved in financial transactions, and the FEC occasionally assigned PAC contributions to the wrong candidate,” the FEC’s inspector general recently announced.

The dollar amounts for triggering certain filing and reporting requirements, too, are sorely in need of upgrades, the agency said. For example, once a group makes or spends $1,000 — a decades-old minimum level — it must register as a political committee.

Most “registration and reporting thresholds were set in 1974 and 1979,” the FEC’s letter states.

Using an online inflation calculator available at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis’ Web site, the $1,000 threshold totals about $2,830 in today’s dollars.

Bob Lenhard, the Democratic-nominated FEC chairman, said the agency looked to “improve our operational capacities” with this year’s list. And despite some apparent initial sandbagging by GOP Senators on the electronic disclosure bill, he said he expects Congress will take up and pass all five of the agency’s recommendations.

“I don’t anticipate any of these will end up being controversial,” Lenhard said. “These are all changes we thought would help make the agency act more effectively, make it easier for us to perform our obligation to enforce the statutes.”

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