Third Time’s a Charm?

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Senators Tester and Cochran introduced the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act today, a bill that would speed disclosure of public campaign finance information, ensure the accuracy of that information, improve efficiency and save taxpayers money. Sunlight has been supporting a version of this bill for the past three congresses—pretty much since we first opened our doors. Maybe this no-brainer bill will finally become law during the 112th Congress.

Senators’ counterparts in the House, presidential candidates and PACs all electronically file their campaign finance reports. Senators, on the other hand, remain mired in an archaic system in which they file their quarterly reports with the Secretary of the Senate, who then prints them out and delivers them to the Federal Election Commission. That agency then inputs the information into its computer databases so it can be publicly viewed online, all at annual cost of about a quarter-million dollars of taxpayer money. Eliminating this duplicative exercise balance the budget, but the outmoded process is worse than simply wasteful. Re-entering the data delays public access to crucial information about who is funding Senate campaigns, sometimes until after the election takes place.

The previous versions of this bill all have had significant bipartisan support and no Senator that we know of has ever publicly opposed the bill. So why are we still waiting for it to pass?

The culprit is Senator Mitch McConnell and his minions, who have demanded that in order for Senators to be able to vote on the bill, there must also be a vote on an unrelated controversial amendment. The amendment would force nonprofit and religious organizations to disclose the names of anyone who gives $5000 or more to the organization any time the group exercises its right to file a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee. Look closely. The self-serving amendment has nothing to do with the disclosure law. But more importantly, if the amendment became law, the result would be fewer legitimate inquiries into Senators’ ethical conduct.

The reason the Republicans have been able to make unwarranted demands for a vote on this “poison pill” amendment is because they have objected to Majority Leader Reid’s attempts to bring the bill up by “unanimous consent,” a procedure the Senate uses to move non-controversial bills quickly, so as to preserve limited floor time for contentious issues. In an ideal world, unanimous consent would be the best to get this straightforward bill enacted. But it hasn’t worked so far. If the Republicans continue to insist on the amendment, perhaps it is time to let the bill come to the floor for a vote. If any Senator is willing to go on record as being against transparency, efficiency and saving taxpayers’ dollars, let him. In the end, we think enough Senators will oppose the amendment and vote to enact a clean electronic filing bill once and for all.

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