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."

The Mankato Free Press

---- — “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.

n Analysts charged with scouring disclosure reports to ensure candidates and political committees are complying with laws have a nearly quarter-million-page backlog. Commissioners themselves are grappling with nearly 270 unresolved enforcement cases.

n Staff morale has plummeted as key employees have fled and others question whether their work remains relevant. Among top FEC jobs currently unfilled or filled on an “acting” basis: general counsel, associate general counsel for policy, associate general counsel for litigation, chief financial officer and accounting director. The staff director doubles as IT director.

As an example of the gridlock, this year the Conservative Action Fund, a PAC, asked for guidance on the use of bitcoins — an all-digital currency. CPI noted that FEC staffers drafted four plans of action, spanning 83 pages, for commissioners to consider.

The Republicans supported the option; Democrats blocked them for a typical 3-3 deadlock.

The CPI’s conclusion is that with the nation facing what purports to be one of the most expensive midterm elections in history and a 2016 presidential election that is pivotal for the nation, “the FEC is rotting from the inside out.”

Frank P. Reiche, a Republican who served as an FEC commissioner from 1979 to 1985, said in the CPI report. “It’s sad — very sad — and the agency is almost doomed to failure for carrying out its statutory mission unless reform measures are implemented and adopted by Congress.”

Don’t expect remedies to come from the administration either. The CPI noted that although President Obama railed against the Citizens United decision, he has given his blessing to the formation of Organizing for Action, a lobbying group that reveals limited information about its donors.

Without adequate national media scrutiny and some Congressional advocates for reform, we can expect unbridled big-money sponsorship of elections despite all the legislation passed to keep such shenanigans in check.