Jim Renacci's bipartisan Federal Election Commission reform effort is sorely needed (Cleveland Plain Dealer)
Is it a waste of taxpayer money for an agency to exist, but so seriously fail in its mission that its own chair described it as "worse than dysfunctional?" Yes, it is—and American taxpayers deserve better. The Federal Election Commission is failing to fulfill even the basic functions of its job. Even in those rare instances when the commission closes a case, it is almost always "a day late and a dollar short."
For example, the FEC finally fined "Restore Our Future" $50,000 for violating laws restricting coordination with candidate campaigns, in response to a complaint filed by the Campaign Legal Center in 2012. It took the FEC nearly four years to resolve the matter, and the fine amounted to a slap on the wrist for the more than $4 million in illegal spending.
The commission routinely deadlocks both on matters of great significance and routine administration and has gone two years without a permanent general counsel because commissioners cannot agree on whom to hire. Recognizing that it is voters who lose the most when the FEC fails to do its job, Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci of Ohio helped put together a bipartisan effort to make the FEC actually work. The Restoring Integrity to America's Elections Act, H.R. 2931, would break the partisan gridlock at the commission. Joining Rep. Renacci on the bill are Republican Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania, as well as Democrats Derek Kilmer of Washington state and John Carney of Delaware. H.R. 2931 would change the FEC to a five-member body with an appointed chair. No more than two commissioners could be from the same party. Certain administrative functions would be delegated to the chair, allowing the commission to focus on the difficult questions of campaign finance law rather than squabbles over staffing.
With an odd number of commissioners, the FEC would be structured like other regulatory agencies in Washington. H.R. 2931 establishes a blue-ribbon panel to recommend qualified individuals to the president, thus bringing public pressure to nominate commissioners who are committed to fulfilling the agency's statutory duties. Currently, nominees are too often partisan or ideological loyalists.
More than 40 years ago, Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, a Pennsylvania Republican, led the effort to establish an independent five-member commission to enforce the nation's federal campaign finance laws. He proposed the creation of a "small, lean agency that would investigate disclosure violations and send them to the Justice Department for disposition." However, Democratic party boss and House Administration Committee Chair Wayne Hays of Ohio successfully ensured that the new independent agency was as weak and ineffective as possible. Rep. Renacci and his bipartisan co-sponsors recognize that laws need to be enforced. The FEC's abject failure comes as Super PACs and "dark money" groups are drastically changing political campaigns. It is time to fix the commission that has proven to be exactly what Chairman Hays hoped for: a weak, ineffective agency deadlocked by partisan dysfunction. This bipartisan bill provides a new starting point for Republicans and Democrats who believe federal agencies should not exist, but actually function.
Meredith McGehee is policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works to overturn laws and regulations that prevent full participation in the political process and to defend and enhance laws that protect such participation.
This opinion piece originally ran in Cleveland Plain Dealer on January 29, 2016. To read it there, click here.