Making campaign finance laws work (Kitsap Sun)


As 2015 came to a close, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) — the agency charged with enforcing federal campaign finance laws — finally fined "Restore Our Future" super PAC $50,000 for violating laws restricting coordination with candidate campaigns, in response to a complaint filed by the Campaign Legal Center in 2012. Not only did it take the FEC nearly four years to resolve the matter, but the fine amounted to a slap on the wrist for the more than $4 million in illegal spending by the super PAC.

Unfortunately, this kind of flaccid enforcement is characteristic of an agency that was designed to fail. The FEC has been called "a toothless tiger," and the "most successful agency in Washington doing what it was designed to do — next to nothing." The FEC is so dysfunctional that it fails to fulfill even the basic functions of its job. The split commission routinely deadlocks both on matters of great significance and routine administration. The Commission has gone without a permanent General Counsel for two years because the Commission cannot agree on whom to hire. In this election year, it remains extremely unlikely that the FEC will properly administer and enforce campaign finance laws in the upcoming elections.

And, as the example above demonstrates, even in those rare instances when the Commission closes a case, it is almost always "a day late and a dollar short."

It is a waste of taxpayer money for an agency to exist but so seriously fail in its mission. American taxpayers deserve better.

Recognizing that it is voters who lose the most when the FEC fails to do its job, Sixth District Rep. Derek Kilmer led a bipartisan effort to introduce the "Restoring Integrity to America's Elections Act," which would break the partisan gridlock at the Commission. Joining Rep. Kilmer in co-sponsoring the bill are Republicans James Renacci of Ohio and Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania, as well as Democrat John Carney of Delaware.

H.R. 2931 would change the FEC to a five-member body with an appointed chair and no more than two commissioners from any 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. Commission action on enforcement matters, rule making, and advisory opinions would still require bipartisan support but avoid the pitfall of deadlock. By making the FEC an odd-numbered commission, it would have a structure like almost every other regulatory agency in Washington.

The Kilmer bill also would create a Blue-Ribbon Panel to make recommendations to the president for FEC Commissioners, bringing public pressure to appoint qualified commissioners with a demonstrated commitment to fulfilling the agency's statutory duties. An unfortunate tradition has arisen in which the president defers to the House and Senate leaders to select nominees. The result is an FEC that is too often stacked with partisan or ideological loyalists, as opposed to honest enforcers.

The FEC's abject failure comes as super PACs and so-called "dark money" groups are drastically changing the face of political campaigns. The skyrocketing outside spending in the 2016 elections is a phenomenon created by the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC, which freed corporations and labor unions to make unlimited independent expenditures using their treasury funds.

More than 40 years ago, a Republican senator led the effort to establish an independent commission to enforce the nation's federal campaign finance laws. Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, R-Penn., proposed the creation of a five-member commission, a "small, lean agency that would investigate disclosure violations and send them to the Justice Department for disposition." However, House Administration Committee Chair Wayne Hayes, D-Ohio, a protector of the machine that had kept the Democrats in control of the House for four decades, successfully ensured that the new independent agency would be as weak and ineffective as possible.

Rep. Kilmer and his bipartisan co-sponsors recognize the need for a functional agency doing its job to ensure the laws are respected and enforced. It is time to fix the Commission that has proved to be exactly what Chairman Hays hoped for: a weak, ineffective agency deadlocked by partisan dysfunction.

The Kilmer bill provides a new starting point to find common ground for Republicans and Democrats who believe federal agencies should not simply exist, but actually function.

Meredith McGehee is policy director of the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C. 

To read the full op-ed on the Kitsap Sun, click here.