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Harry Reid, Ensign, Senate point fingers, don't disclose donors--still

August 5, 2008 |  7:10 pm

The nation’s most exclusive club didn’t get its reputation for nothing.

Ted Stevens, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell and the 97 other U.S. senators count on the rest of us to use computers to file income tax returns. But senators themselves haven’t entered the computer age, at least not when it comes to the basic sunshine requirement that they identify their donors.

Campaign finance disclosure advocates are drawing attention to the issue, urging voters tell senators to pass S. 223.

As we wrote more than a year ago, senators are Luddites when it comes to using newfangled computers for public disclosure. They direct their aides to deliver campaign finance reports -- the documents can run thousands of pages -- by hand or snailDemocratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Searchlight, Nev. mail to the Senate, which in turn delivers them to the Federal Election Commission.

The Federal Election Commission spends millions annually on couriers, an old-fashioned copy machine, and key-punchers who type names of donors into computers so that senators’ reports can be displayed on the Internet.

The process can take months.

As happens in each election, donors giving to senators in the closing weeks of the 2008 campaign won’t become public in any meaningful way until long after votes are counted.

For years, senators have bottled up efforts to force themselves to place their reports on the Net. It's an anachronism, particularly given candidates for the presidency, the House and most state offices file their reports online.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein vowed to press the issue last year when she took over the Senate Rules Committee. Forty-five senators have endorsed the idea.

John McCain long has backed online disclosure, said Stephen Weissman of the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan group that pushes the issue. Barack Obama also endorses it, though he came rather late to the issue, said Weissman.

More than a year later, however, online disclosure is not a reality.

Weissman spreads the blame: Republican leader McConnell and Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign, who have balked at the concept. Reid shares responsibility for failing to push the measure to a vote, Weissman said -- an idea that Reid spokesman Jim Manley disputes.

Manley points the finger at Reid's Republican counterpart from Nevada, saying Ensign "repeatedly has blocked Sen. Feinstein's effort to bring this bill to the floor." No word yet from Ensign.

-- Dan Morain

Photo: Associated Press Pablo Martinez Monsivais