How Congress can reform campaign finance for the American people (The Hill)


Imagine for a moment that a presidential candidate benefited from a $1 million donation made anonymously by a shell company explicitly created to mask the identity of the donor. Also imagine that the government agency responsible for policing premeditated campaign finance violations like this was nowhere to be found.

This is a true story: Over the course of four months in 2011, an enigmatic company named W Spann LLC was formed in Delaware, contributed $1 million to a pro-Mitt Romney super PAC and then disbanded. By the time the pro-Romney super PAC publicly disclosed the contribution, the company no longer existed.

Eventually the mystery man behind the group — Edward Conard, a former managing director at a financial firm that Romney once headed — came forward. But it took the Federal Election Commission (FEC) nearly five years to take action. And when it did, it gridlocked on whether Conard should be punished or let off with the equivalent of a warning.

Unfortunately, this is all too typical of the FEC — the small, independent agency responsible for policing the raising and spending of money in politics. Its six commissioners have also deadlocked over numerous other interpretations of the rules that should be no-brainers.

For instance, they have failed to rein in coordination between campaigns and outside groups. Who can forget when former President Bill Clintonappeared as the main attraction at a meeting for Priorities USA Action, the super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton’s bid for president? That appearance helped bless the group as the go-to outside source for unlimited donations to support Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House.

The FEC has also failed to enforce rules related to the scourge of political “dark money” and continued to let groups proliferate on both the left and right. FEC commissioners went from deadlocking on fewer than three percent of all major enforcement cases they reviewed in 2006 to deadlocking 30 percent of the time in 2016, according to one count.

It’s time for a change in Washington, and it must come from the legislative branch, whose job is to empower regulatory enforcers. The FEC was created by Congress in 1975 following the Watergate scandal to enforce the new campaign finance laws that had passed.

Today, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that has unleashed unprecedented amounts of money into our political system, the FEC is a critical agency charged with ensuring our nation’s federal candidates for the most powerful positions in government follow the law.

This charge is more important now than ever before given that public trust of government is at an all-time low. Congress needs to ensure that this small but important cop on the beat works for all Americans, rather than simply being in the pockets of Washington politicians.

Even former FEC Chairman Don McGahn, now White House counsel to President Trump, admits that the agency has “the charge of the fox guarding the hen-house” because it oversees the very members of Congress who control its budget. Moreover, by tradition, presidents have historically deferred to the congressional leaders about who to nominate to the commission.

The problem, put simply, is the FEC was purposefully designed to be incapable of effectively addressing the complexity and size of our campaign finance system, and the thousands of candidates, organizations and billions of dollars it has to police, all with a modest budget of about $60 million.

But there is hope: Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio), along with 10 other lawmakers from both parties, are ready to overhaul the agency. This bipartisan group introduced the Restoring Integrity to America’s Elections Act in Congress to change the structure of the FEC to be the same as almost every other independent agency in Washington.

The bill reduces the number of commissioners from six to five, with no two from the same political party, and thus be less likely to fall into endless gridlock. The bill would further create a new blue ribbon advisory panel of experts to help the president identify and then nominate qualified commissioners.

Now more than ever, our nation needs a functional agency to enforce federal elections laws fairly and to serve the interests of the American people, not the politicians or their funders. Laws are only as good as the agency enforcing them. The Restoring Integrity to America’s Elections Act aims to structure a commission that is capable of — and designed to — enforce the laws on the books.

Meredith McGehee is chief of policy, programs, and strategy at Issue One. She previously spent more than a decade as director of policy as theCampaign Legal Center and has been named 10 times a top grassroots lobbyist in Washington by The Hill.

This piece was originally posted on April 14th, 2017 in The Hill.