No Vote of Confidence for the FEC
In light of the recent failure of gun control legislation despite widespread public support for change, most Americans would be hard-pressed to name a government entity more dysfunctional than Congress. But that is only because most people have never heard of the Federal Election Commission, which is more out of touch with common sentiment than the House and Senate combined.
Voters have become cynical about elected leaders, believing many are bought and paid for. While decrying this public perception, politicians on both sides of the aisle have little interest in taking any concrete action to improve the situation.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) calls the FEC the “little agency that can’t”; perhaps more aptly, it is the party stalwarts who won’t. Why? Since 2008, the commission has been crippled by partisan gridlock. In particular, the three Republican commissioners — Caroline Hunter, Donald McGahn and Matthew Petersen — openly defy their statutory obligations and regularly spurn the enforcement recommendations of the FEC general counsel.
McGahn is particularly aggressive in politicizing the agency, seemingly attempting to render it impotent. He has said the job of an FEC commissioner is to make sure his political party’s interests “are taken care of” and has boasted, “I’m not enforcing the law as Congress passed it. … I plead guilty as charged.” Yet enforcement of our campaign finance laws is critical to instilling confidence in the integrity of public officials and federal elections.
This attitude results in a real-world negative impact. In 2012, the FEC deadlocked on 18.5 percent of its enforcement-related votes, effectively neutering the agency’s enforcement function. For comparison, between 2003 and 2007, the average was 1 percent. As a result, candidates, political committees and outside groups routinely flout campaign finance law, secure in the knowledge they are unlikely to face any consequences. Even when the agency does stir itself to act, the paltry fines generally assessed can be written off as simply a cost of doing business.
If the agency’s record of inaction is not sufficient to stir Congress and the administration to act, the vacancies on the panel should be. As of Tuesday, not only is the FEC one commissioner short of the usual six, but all five remaining commissioners are sitting despite expired terms. It is up to President Barack Obama to nominate new commissioners, but after one failed nomination early in his first term, he hasn’t so much as floated another potential nominee.
At the beginning of 2012, my organization, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and a number of allied good government groups asked the president to appoint new commissioners to fix the FEC. When the president failed to heed our call, we used the White House petition process to have more than 25,000 Americans join us in asking the administration to act, but received pabulum in response. We renewed our request this past December, but still nothing.
Well into year five of his presidency, Obama has failed to take any action to enforce — much less reform — our campaign finance laws. Although the president campaigned on the issue of campaign finance reform before winning his first term and condemned the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision in a State of the Union address, he has done little to address the problems.
With the FEC asleep at the wheel, CREW has been working to hold those who break campaign finance law accountable by filing complaints against groups such as Americans for Job Security, the American Action Network and Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS. There is little hope, however, given the partisan deadlock, that the commission will take action in the face of even egregious violations. Instead, we aim for increased public awareness of campaign finance violations to spur voters to demand action.
While it is easy to disparage the FEC, what we need to do is fix it. The White House should be working with campaign finance reform advocates to nominate a full slate of nonpartisan, no-nonsense candidates to the commission, and the Senate should vote on them. During his first campaign, the president famously stated, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” What are we waiting for now?