When we last visited the Campaign Disclosure Parity Act (S. 223) in early January, the Senate had decided not to include within the opening ethics package this simple bill to bring the Senate into the 21st century by requiring that Senate candidates file their FEC reports electronically, making them easily and quickly searchable. You remember -- don't you? -- how hard it was to sift through hundreds of pages of handwritten filings to find those troubling "petty cash" entries in that Senate primary.
At the time, Sen. Reid promised that this Feingold-Cochran bill would come up again soon, and as I'm typing this, you can watch a live webcast Sen. Feinstein's Rules Committee hold its hearing on S. 223. All six witnesses support the bill -- indeed, no one openly opposes it anymore -- and here's some of what Sen. Feingold will be saying:
The FEC is required to make available on the Internet within 24 hours any filing it receives electronically. So if this bill is enacted, electronic versions of Senate reports should be available to the public within 48 hours of their filing. That will be a vast improvement over the current situation, which requires journalists and interested members of the public to review computer images of paper-filed copies of reports, and involves a completely wasteful expenditure by the FEC of hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to re-enter information into databases, even though every Senate campaign has the information available in electronic format.
This step is long overdue. There is no excuse for keeping our own campaign finance information inaccessible to the public when the information filed by House and Presidential candidates, PACs, parties, and even 527 organizations is readily available almost immediately. The Washington Post has called the outmoded Senate campaign reporting system ``obviously unjustified," and Roll Call has called it "indefensible." I couldn't agree more. Why has the Senate required electronic filing of everyone else, but refused to get rid of its own exemption?
The current system means that the FEC’s detailed coding, which allows the press and the public to do more sophisticated searches and analysis, is completed over a week later for Senate reports than for House reports. It means that the final disclosure reports covering the first two weeks of October are often not available for detailed scrutiny until after the election. Indeed, according to the Campaign Finance Institute, prior to the 2006 election, "[i]n all ten of the most closely followed Senate races, voters were unable to search through any candidate reports for information on [donations made after September]." And a September 2006 column by Jeffery Birnbaum in the Washington Post noted that "When the polls opened in November 2004, voters were in the dark about $53 million in individual Senate contributions of $200 or more dating all the way back to July." That’s scandalous Madam Chairman, and there is no good reason for it.
Madam Chairman, let me just say that I know that the election laws have a big impact on campaigns and all Senators want to scrutinize them very carefully for partisan or personal implications. I am very familiar with controversial and contested campaign finance legislation. This isn’t that kind of bill. This bill is as close to a no-brainer as you can get in this area.
The bill currently has 29 co-sponsors, 18 D and 11 R. And that's where you come in.
If either of your Senators isn't listed (i.e., unless you live in CA, CO, CT, IL or TX), call the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and ask to speak with his or her office. And all you have to say is some version of this:
Hi, I was hoping I could speak with someone about Sen. [Feingold if (D), Cochran if (R)]'s electronic disclosure bill? [wait] My name is [X], and I live in [Town], [Your State]. I regularly follow politics online, so I was hoping that the Senator would support S. 223, the electronic disclosure bill for campaign finance reports which is in front of the Rules Committee today. Does s/he have a position on it? Will the Senator co-sponsor the bill?
Be polite (even to the Republican staffers) and be firm. You'll be done in two minutes. Then, come back here and tell us how it went. Every phone call really does make a difference -- it forces their attention, and moves issues up the internal chain-of-command.
Pressure and attention from online activists has eliminated many of the roadblocks from this bill's passage over the past year. Now, let's finish the job.