The Free Press, Mankato, MN


December 22, 2013

FEC watchdog starved

Why it matters: With the nation facing expensive midterm elections and a 2016 presidential election, the FEC is "rotting from the inside out."

“We have the best government money can buy,” Mark Twain once said. It appears such sentiment holds today as it did back then — despite all the legislation and wringing of hands.

Advocates for reducing the influence of money on politics got a full head of steam in the 1970s with the passage of the Federal Election Campaign Act requiring candidates to disclose contributions and how they were spent.

Two year later, limits were placed on contributions and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) was born to oversee regulations. While this brought some transactions to light, some lobbyists found creative ways to keep the funding hidden.

Then in 2002, the McCain-Feingold legislation (or more formally, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act) revised the legal limits of expenditures and banned “soft” money to national political parties which are donations from independent groups that neither advocate for causes or candidates nor go to their campaigns.

However, in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case that the government cannot limit corporate funding in candidate elections (both business and labor organizations included) citing it as an abridgement of free speech.

Since then the donor floodgates again have opened putting more pressure on the FEC for enforcement and oversight. Well, good luck with that. According to a recently released (and largely ignored) report from the Center for Public Integrity, the FEC is crippled because of staff and funding cuts as well as partisan bickering.

Some of the findings from the CPI include:

n The commission over the past year has reached a paralyzing all-time low in its ability to reach consensus, stalling action on dozens of rulemaking, audit and enforcement matters, some of which are years old.

n Despite an explosion in political spending hastened by key Supreme Court decisions, the agency’s funding has remained flat for five years and staffing levels have fallen to a 15-year low.

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