The 32,000 public comments the Federal Election Commission (FEC) recently received in response to its request for comments on key money-in-politics issues could represent a healthy development for the beleaguered agency.
For years, the FEC has been dismissed—deservedly—as a dysfunctional backwater, either mired in partisan, ideology-driven bickering or focused on protecting incumbents' interests. Commissioners have too often been placed on the panel largely because of their dependability in protecting party interests, thus helping the agency earn its moniker as the "Failure to Enforce Commission."
So it is not surprising that the only people who have traditionally paid attention to the agency are either the attorneys representing the political parties, candidates and political money groups or a handful of campaign finance reform advocates who have worked—usually in vain—to goad the Commission into useful action.
The Campaign Legal Center has long been a part of this last group. For the past 10 years, Senior Counsel Paul Ryan has often been a lonely voice representing the public interest at agency hearings or in filing comments. But over the past year or so, the agency has seemingly committed itself to engaging the public at large in the agency’s work. This is a good thing.
In laying out for the public record the reasonable policy options the FEC should adopt, Ryan and the Campaign Legal Center focused on building a record the courts could look to when deciding cases. But building that public record is just one part of changing a campaign finance system that is spinning out of control. The Campaign Legal Center recognizes that it is important for the FEC to hear from the other 99.9% of Americans who aren't players in the Washington money game. This is especially true after the Citizens United decision which has unleashed growing amounts of "dark money."
The 32,000 public comments filed with the FEC shows that a wide swath of the American people has a growing understanding of what's at stake in FEC decisions. The FEC should take this high level of interest as an opportunity to reorient its focus, from captive agency to a consumer protection agency. In this case, the consumers are the American voters.
Let's hope the FEC's fecklessness will start to diminish as more people pay attention to what the agency is—or isn’t—doing. The 32,000 is a good start.