Memo to Senator Reid: Take Ensign Up on His Offer on S. 223


Knowing we had a great opportunity to corner Sen. Ensign, who’s blocking a bill requiring electronic reporting for senators’ campaign contributions, we sent our intrepid staff to the National Press Club today, where he was holding forth on other matters. We asked Sen. Ensign why he continues to hold up S. 223.

As we’ve talked about before, Ensign’s insistence that the Senate vote on a controversial and unrelated amendment has jeopardized this straightforward bill that otherwise has broad, bipartisan support. Without that amendment, S. 223 would sail through the Senate with nearly unanimous backing.

During the Press Club event and after, staff from Sunlight and the Center for Responsive Politics asked Sen. Ensign if he would be willing to lift his objection to the bill if he was promised a hearing on his amendment in the Rules Committee (an offer already made by Rules Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein). Sen. Ensign declined, insisting that he wants one hour of debate on the amendment, and would subject his amendment to, as he put it, a “60 vote requirement.”

Ensign’s amendment has no place in this bill, and we question his motives in insisting that it be part of the debate on the electronic filing measure. It is disingenuous for him to claim that he is “100% for electronic reporting” (subscription required for that link) while single-handedly preventing this bill from passing. But, we are cautiously optimistic that, as Ensign himself pointed out, his amendment would be defeated if it came up for a vote.

We hope Senator Reid will take Senator Ensign up on his offer and bring S. 223 to the floor if the Senate reconvenes after Election Day. We know how the Senate works, though. Senator Reid will want to know Ensign’s amendment will fail before he can bring the bill up for a vote.

That’s where you can help. Go to and call your senators to urge them to support the bill and also oppose Ensign’s amendment. If enough of them agree to oppose Ensign’s amendment, this bill will become law and we will finally have timely, online access to who is funding Senate campaigns.

And thanks to all of you who have already called your senators and reported back on our site!

Categorized in:
Share This:
  • So this is one of those complicated answers. First, there are many, many ways for a single senator to stop a piece of legislation. In the case of Jesse Helms, he was the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Any bills that had to come through that committee had to go through him. A committee chairman has the ultimate power to block legislation referred to their committee.

    In the case of our little bill, S. 223, it has taken a long road. First, we need to recognize that campaign finance issues, no matter how mundane can be politically explosive. In the case of introducing a campaign finance bill like S. 223, careful attention needs to be made as to how the bill is considered on the floor of the Senate.

    By this I mean that the Senate must consider whether other amendments, which could possibly aim at undermining current campaign finance laws or other, somewhat relevant, areas, should be allowed to be introduced. One way around the introduction of amendments is to pass the bill through unanimous consent. If no one objects, then, poof, the bill passes. There are tons of noncontroversial bills that pass this way every session. One would assume that a simple bill to require senators to file campaign finance reports electronically (something that they all have the capability of doing now anyways) would be accepted for unanimous consent. Unfortunately, no.

    When the bill was first brought up for unanimous consent an objection was made on behalf of another senator. Back then, a senator could secretly block a piece of legislation by sending another senator to object without giving a reason. That practice has been overturned and is now not allowed.

    Once the new rules were in place disallowing these secret activities, the bill was brought up again and Sen. John Ensign objected as he wished to introduce an amendment (the one which is referenced in the above blog post). Ensign’s amendment was immediately recognized as a poison pill, as, if it were adopted and attached to the underlying bill, supporters of the bill would no longer vote for the bill.

    Ensign has repeatedly stated that he simply wants a vote on his amendment, however he has refused to take up an offer to have his amendment reviewed and voted on as a stand alone bill so that S. 223 can pass. We at the Sunlight Foundation have been trying to do a count of senators to determine whether they support S. 223 and oppose Ensign’s amendment ( This information if showing widespread opposition to Ensign would entice Majority Leader Reid to bring the amendment and bill to a vote.

    I hope this in some way clarifies one way in which a single senator can block a single piece of legislation.

  • Dem02020

    I want to learn more about these matters, and am eager for the lessons: but in the meantime, I’m a little bit perplexed and ignorant, as to how a single U.S. Senator can stymy and freeze the actions, of the entire U.S. Senate…

    Am I unaware of some powerful almost supernatural power placed over our Democracy, or is it my ignorant misunderstanding of the Constitutional mandate that “each Senator shall have one Vote”?

    I don’t know, yet: I am right now looking at Senate Rules, regarding “unanimous consent” and “unanimous consent agreements”: either our Senate Leadership is weaker than week-old dishwater, or our Constitution (and Senate Rules subservient) make for a powerless Democracy, and a multitude (as many as one hundred Kings) Monarchy…

    See what I mean?

    I am 100% for the transparency mandated in the Measure, and for the electronic (format and access) Internet Wire means of that transparency… I Vote YEA.

    But I am confused as to how and why a single U.S. Senator can stop this or any other U.S. Law in it’s Democratic tracks.

    As I said, I am still learning… I am attentive to Senate Rules, and attentive to the Senate’s leadership…

    And I am wonderous at how it was past, that neither Sen. Joseph McCarthy nor even Sen. Jesse Helms, ever held the American People’s U.S. Senate as captive, as does this Sen. Ensign (or that Sen. Inhofe) seem to do today.