Bennett is trying to foil bill, critics say

Published March 27, 2007 1:07 am
They argue his amendment hurts legislation that would require electronic disclosure by Senate candidates
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WASHINGTON - Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, a longtime supporter of immediate disclosure of campaign contributions, is pushing an amendment to campaign finance legislation that critics say is really an effort to thwart electronic disclosure by Senate candidates.

Bennett, however, says he is just trying to increase transparency in campaign rules, particularly a ban on party officials coordinating with candidates in campaign advertisements during a general election.

As it stands now, Bennett argues, a candidate has no control over party ads that may attack an opponent, and that limitation needs to be removed to ensure accountability.

To others, though, Bennett's efforts are undermining a bill that seeks one simple but important change: requiring Senate candidates to file their disclosures in an electronic form, as do candidates for the House and White House, as well as political parties and political action committees.

Right now, Senate candidates' disclosures are filed in paper form to the secretary of the Senate, then scanned and sent to the Federal Elections Commission, creating a delay for the public to see the information in the run up to the election.

The Campaign Finance Institute said that as late as three days before the 2004 election, the antiquated reporting system hid from the public 85 percent of the donations made to U.S. Senate candidates in the three months leading up to that balloting.

"Sen. Bennett, by moving in a way that would kill this bill, is embarrassing Utah," argues Massie Ritsch, communications director for the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. "Why can't their senator join the 21st century and encourage others to do so as well?"

The government watchdog group Democracy 21 also complained Monday that Bennett was operating to defeat the measure.

"If you start to turn this bill into a Christmas tree with all sorts of controversial amendments, you're going to kill the legislation," says the group's president, Fred Werthheimer. "And Sen. Bennett has to understand that."

Democrats want the campaign finance legislation to get a straight up or down vote in the Senate without being encumbered by controversial amendments. Bennett says he is for the electronic filing bill and wants full disclosure. He has long advocated immediate disclosure and no limits on funding.

"I am not attempting to scuttle it," Bennett said in an interview. "I'm for the underlying bill. It's a good bill and we ought to pass it. The focus of the underlying bill is to increase transparency and accountability. The focus of my amendment is to increase transparency and accountability."

Bennett adds that his amendment - which would allow candidates and parties to coordinate advertisements - is not controversial and would benefit Republicans and Democrats alike. If his amendment passes, he says he will co-sponsor the full legislation. But he vehemently denies any attempt to kill the measure.

"I've been around long enough to know how to do that. And yeah, if that's what I wanted to do, I could find some amendments to put on this to kill it," Bennett said. "That is not my purpose."

Bennett's office points to an editorial by The Washington Post in favor of a measure like the senator's amendment and also to statements from Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, and Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, supporting such an action.

Malbin, in a blog entry in 2006, advocated "letting the parties make unlimited coordinat[ed] expenditures instead of forcing the perverse choice of requiring parties and their candidates to be independent."

Malbin and Mann, however, sent the Senate Rules Committee a letter on Monday saying they may have made comments as individuals supporting unlimited party expenditures, but "we do not support this as an amendment to this bill."

"Unlimited party coordinated expenditures is a controversial idea that has been rejected several times," the two wrote.

The legislation is up for a vote in the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday.


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