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Mystery as Disclosure Bill Is Held

Just days after Congressional campaigns had to file financial reports with the Federal Election Commission, the Senate put the brakes on a bill that would make its financial records more accessible.

Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) moved Tuesday to approve legislation by unanimous consent that would require Senate candidates to file their reports electronically, but a Republican Senator anonymously objected, stalling the bill indefinitely.

Advocates of the measure complained vociferously.

“This bill has bipartisan support in the Senate and significant support around the country,” Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), the bill’s only original sponsor, said in a statement. “I am aware of no opposition to it at all.

“I do not understand why someone in this body would block a bill that simply brings the Senate filing process into the 21st century, and do so anonymously and without explanation,” Feingold continued.

Although the bill now has 34 co-sponsors, Feingold, and his Republican partner, Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.), have encountered difficulty every step of the way.

Feingold began his quest in November 2003, and Cochran joined him shortly thereafter.

Last month, when the Senate Rules and

Administration Committee unanimously approved the bill, it was the first action the bill had seen beyond a February hearing.

Feinstein had hoped to “hotline” the bill, which would have allowed it to progress without ever coming to the floor.

The Feingold-Cochran measure would require Senate candidates to file campaign reports electronically with the FEC, just as federal political action committees and House and presidential candidates do.

Only Senate candidates and the Senate campaign committees are exempt from the electronic filing requirement. Currently, they file paper copies with the Secretary of the Senate, who then must scan all the pages and transmit them to the FEC. The FEC then has to enter a lot of the information manually before posting the reports online.

That causes delays, making it harder for the public to find or see the reports and it is costly. FEC officials have made passage of the electronic disclosure bill their number one legislative priority of the 110th Congress.

Feinstein said the paper filing by Senate candidates costs taxpayers $250,000 annually.

“I am urging the Senate to refrain from holding this bill hostage over other campaign finance battles that have been going on for years,” Feinstein said on the Senate floor after the bill was scuttled. “This is exactly the type of good-government law that the Senate could adopt as a stand alone measure.”

The bill was almost derailed at its March 28 markup when Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), with the blessing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), wanted to offer an amendment that would lift the caps on coordinated spending between the party campaign committees and individual campaigns.

The Senate Democratic leadership is cool to such a proposal.

Bennett and Feinstein worked out a deal that allowed the Feingold-Cochran measure to advance solo. In exchange, Bennett was granted a hearing on his proposal.

That hearing is scheduled for today.

McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said Tuesday’s objection was routine and only represented a temporary setback.

“There’s not a hold on it,” he said. “People are reviewing it. It likely will pass with good numbers.”

The bill, which runs a little more than two pages, has been available to the public since March 28. Furthermore, Feinstein immediately alerted both Democratic and Republican leaders that she wished to hotline the legislation.

Some of the bill’s advocates say that despite Republicans’ claims that the delay is routine, the bill could become hostage to GOP leaders’ objections to certain campaign finance reforms. The objection technically was raised by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) because he happened to be on the Senate floor at the time.

Alexander’s spokeswoman confirmed that he did so for someone else, whom he would not name.

The House also must approve the bill and it needs President Bush’s signature to become law, but not even the bill’s opponents foresee that being a problem — once it gets out of the Senate.

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