Emboldened bloggers target financial disclosures

Fresh off their high-profile assist on a stalled government-sunshine bill, bloggers from both ends of the political spectrum are using their unique grassroots lobbying power to push for electronic filing of Senate campaign-finance reports.

The Senate’s historic reluctance to embrace online reporting sets up bureaucratic hurdles at the Federal Election Commission (FEC), where workers wrestle with hundreds of thousands of hand-printed pages every election cycle. The Secretary of the Senate must process senators’ paper reports before sending them to the FEC, increasing potential delays and costs.

“It would make Senate campaign finance information available to the public on the Internet in real time … it would also make the information more searchable and accessible,” FEC Chairman Michael Toner said via e-mail. “I think the legislation would strengthen and improve the campaign finance system.”

But the bloggers are building their campaign – dubbed “Bring the Senate into the 21st Century” – on a pitch for greater transparency and accountability, the avowed goals of a Congress tarred by scandal this session. From RedState on the right to Daily Kos on the left, the Internet scribes are hoping to replicate their success in lifting Senate holds on the government-spending database measure that President Bush signed into law with much fanfare last month.

Since the online call went out late last month following a letter circulated by the chief sponsors of this year’s electronic filing bill, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), they have picked up three new co-sponsors, including Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), the ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee.

“The strong response from the public underscores the need for this legislation,” Cochran spokeswoman Margaret Wicker said via e-mail. “Hopefully the leadership of the Senate will view this support as a reason to expeditiously approve this important update to the Senate’s campaign contribution filing system.”

Feingold and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) are two senators who voluntarily disclose their contributions and expenditures through the click of a mouse. Lugar actually started off in 2000 as a lone techie, posting donations of $200 or more on his campaign website each week, according to campaign manager Nick Weber.

“The senator is interested in transparency in his campaign organization and the individuals who support it financially,” Weber said.

Even that voluntary filing does not spare the FEC extra work, though. The Secretary of the Senate still must timestamp extra paper copies for the commission, which sends the documents to an outside contractor in Virginia for re-computerizing. The annual cost to taxpayers for that work, Biersack estimated, is nearly $250,000.

Two senators initially were singled out as likely opponents of electronic filing, a longtime recommendation of the FEC and a fact of life for House members, presidential candidates and PACs. When the Louisville Courier-Journal’s editorial board asserted last week that its home-state senator, Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), was in favor of electronic filing, attention turned to Rules Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

Lott’s office did not return a request for comment by press time on the online speculation, shared by some campaign-finance analysts, that the former Senate leader is hesitant to support electronic filing. The nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute (CFI), which has pushed for the Senate to make the switch since the McCain-Feingold reform law passed in 2002, has pointed to positive remarks Lott made on the issue in 2003.

CFI Associate Director Steve Weissman said the renewed debate over electronic filing gave him confidence that the bill could pass unanimously during the lame-duck session.

“People we thought might be opposed to it have come out and said” they are supportive or open to the change, Weissman said, extending credit beyond the Web. “I don’t think it’s just the blogs … there has been a combination of forces here coming together.”

A coalition of watchdog groups that informally amassed to support strong lobbying and ethics reform has also sent a letter of support for the electronic filing bill in recent days. Among its signers were Democracy 21, the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Public Citizen.

Weissman pointed to the success of the blogger-backed spending database bill as another factor building momentum for electronic filing.

Former FEC Chairman Bradley Smith, who consistently backed the commission’s suggestions for electronic filing, questioned in a recent posting on the Center for Competitive Politics blog whether the bill would actually lead to more engaged voters willing to parse dense campaign-finance reports. But Smith, in an interview, predicted that senators eventually would vote to eliminate the needless paper trail.

“I’m always in favor of the public being informed,” Smith said. “Some of these bloggers get to be pretty big outfits, but for the most part they [better] represent average citizens than the editorial page of The New York Times.”

More in Defense

Inhofe: Gitmo release will 'embolden terrorists'

Read more »