We have banded together before on these principles and won - on the battle to keep the Internet free of onerous campaign finance regulations, and on the battle for transparency in earmarks - forcing Sen. Stevens to release his hold on the Coburn-Obama bill.
Today, it's time to launch a third joint campaign, and that's to bring the United States Senate into the 21st century when it comes to campaign finance reporting. Today's Washington Post explains the stakes:
In one of the most controversial quirks in election law, candidates for Senate are not required to file their campaign-finance reports electronically. That means voters can't effectively find out how much and from whom their would-be senators have collected money until long after the election -- too late for them to act.
A growing number of senators and public-interest groups have been working for years to change this rule. They contend that it's only reasonable that senators should be required to file their disclosures electronically -- just as candidates for the House and the presidency do. In that way voters can easily see within 24 hours via the Internet what the candidates are spending and from whom they are getting their funds.
As it is, almost all senators and Senate candidates deliver their reports on paper (even though those reports are written on computers). The paper filings are laboriously scanned and then key-punched into an electronic system, a procedure that often takes six weeks to finish and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.
After the reports are submitted to the Secretary of the Senate (often well past published deadlines), they are placed onto the Federal Election Commission's Web site in a page-by-page format. The listings are not searchable, which makes it almost impossible for anyone to glean useful information. Think of the process like rummaging through thousands of disorderly papers in a very large box.
The net result: Senators have insulated themselves from criticism that stems from their very important, end-of-campaign donations because they have denied voters accessible information when it would be most useful.
Here's an example to make it vivid: to figure out who had given money to Joe Lieberman during the last two weeks of his Senate primary, volunteers had to go through 14 handwritten reports (non-OCR PDFs) and manually compile the data. To do that for Al Wynn for his House primary, just click on the F6's, and it's right there.
Here's another example: there was much made of the bloggers paid by the John Thune for Senate campaign in 2004. But, you know what? It was right there in his handwritten FEC filings - you just had to go page-by-page through documents that were thousands of pages long to find it. In this day and age, that's bananas. B-A-N-A-N-A-S.
So, what are we going to do about it? There's a bill out there, S. 1508, which would bring Senate candidates up to the same level as their brethren in the House in requiring electronic filing. It has bipartisan support - Sens. McCain and Feingold, Durbin and Cochran, Landrieu and Lugar, among others. But it hasn't gotten a hearing in the Senate since first being introduced in 2003. Why?
Two people stand in its way -- Rules and Administration Committee chair Trent Lott, who's not returning calls from reporters on the topic, and (based on informed accounts) Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who neither likes campaign finance regulation nor anything to make it easy on citizens.
It's surprising, because Sen. McConnell usually is a strong voice for disclosure. Back in May 2000, he said in Committee:
The New Way of reform, of which I am an advocate, is to trust people to decide what levels of campaign spending and contributions are acceptable and to what degree it is appropriate to associate with so-called special interests. The Internet -- the revolutionary new communications medium with the potential to put information at peoples' fingertips and allow anyone with a modicum of initiative to become a publisher or broadcaster adding to the political debate -- is a key to empowering people to make informed political decisions.
As for Sen. Lott, back in November 2003 he claimed to be a supporter:
I also think - you know, I'm for the electronic filing of your [Senators] financial reports. People say, well, wait a minute, we don't want people being able to get that quick an access. Look, what are you - who are you trying to keep secret? That's part of honesty in elections, I think. Make it accessible.
It's his committee; he can make this happen.
This is simple, bipartisan, common-sense reform, and it's time for Democrats and Republicans move it forward. Make some phone calls today.
We're going to let the RedStaters take care of calling Sens. Lott and McConnell while we focus on our side of the aisle. Our goal is to get the rest of the Democrats on the Rules and Administration Committee on board, starting with Sen. Chris Dodd, who as our ranking member of the Committee needs to be doing more to push this through. Here's your phone numbers:
Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT): (202) 224-2823
Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV): (202) 224-3954
Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI): (202) 224-3934
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA): (202) 224-3841
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY): (202) 224-6542
Sen. Mark Dayton (D-MN): (202) 224-3244
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE): (202) 224-6551
Of those seven, Sen. Dodd is the key, so if you can only make one call, make it to his office. Call today - be polite, and tell them that you read the article in the Washington Post, and that you want them to co-sponsor and support S. 1508. This is bipartisan, obvious legislation to bring the Senate in line with everyone else regulated by campaign finance law, and to bring it into the 21st century. It's time for a vote on S. 1508.
Make the calls, and let us know what they say.