National Political Party Committees Should be Transparent, but the FEC Won’t Act

Chairs behind a desk with a large logo of the FEC on the wall behind them
The Federal Election Commission in Washington, D.C. Photo by Casey Atkins/Campaign Legal Center

Real transparency about the ever-increasing amount of money spent to influence elections — including the large sums raised and spent by national political parties for things like conventions and party headquarters — leads to more accountability. When voters know who is cutting big checks to help Democrats buy office space or fund a Republican convention, they have greater insight into who may be influencing that party’s agenda.  

But since 2014, there has been a major block to voters’ ability to see how national party committees spend their money. That year, Congress amended the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) to not only allow for special-purpose accounts that can be used to manage party headquarters, organize presidential nominating conventions and fund legal proceedings, but to also permit those new accounts to accept funds up to three times higher than the general contribution limit for national party committees.  

This means a great deal of money is flowing into these accounts. Each national political party currently operates up to seven of these special-purpose accounts. (A party’s congressional and senatorial committees can each have two accounts, and the national committee can have three.)

Currently, an individual can contribute up to $247,800 per account, or over $1.7 million total, to a single party over a two-year election cycle.  

The problem for transparency — and by extension, democracy — is not necessarily the astronomical sums that these accounts can receive, but the Federal Election Commission's (FEC) utter failure to implement critical statutory changes to ensure that parties provide meaningful disclosure of the funds flowing into and out of their special-purpose accounts. 

Known as the “Cromnibus” amendments, they were created by three paragraphs of a 700-page, must-pass government funding bill, which did not contain any specific reporting requirements for these accounts. 

While every political committee — including those tied to national parties — is required to file periodic reports that detail the committee’s total receipts, disbursements and cash on hand, there is no FEC rule explaining how to report legally required details about the money flowing into and out of these special-purpose accounts.  

In the absence of clear guidance from the FEC, the parties are making up their own rules. As a result, anyone trying to understand how the party committees use their special-purpose accounts must comb through tens of thousands of pages of reports and tally receipts and disbursements by hand.

This task is complicated by the fact that the party committees report inconsistently, using different terms and different reporting fields to document special-purpose account transactions.  

Voters have a right to know how national political parties that control our government are raising and spending money as they seek to influence elections. That means being able to make a clear-eyed assessment of who is bankrolling their expenses and how much they are spending on items like lawsuits and upscale office furniture.  

When national political party committees can collect huge amounts from wealthy donors — and there’s no meaningful way for the public to track where that money goes — that is a problem for democracy. 

The agency that can fix this ongoing concern is the Federal Election Commission (FEC). In fact, the absence of accessible publicly available financial information about these accounts violates the FEC’s statutory mandate.  

In 2019, Campaign Legal Center and OpenSecrets filed a rulemaking petition with the FEC, calling on the agency to require detailed, standardized reporting of all monetary transactions regarding these accounts. However, the FEC failed to respond to this petition and subsequent follow-up comments made by both organizations for over four years.  

As the agency responsible for enforcing the laws that govern the federal U.S. campaign finance system, it is the FEC’s duty to ensure that national party committees report all their raising and spending in a clear, easy-to-read manner. Transparency requires this.

That is why, in October 2023, Campaign Legal Center and OpenSecrets jointly filed a lawsuit challenging the agency’s unreasonable delay in addressing this matter.  

The FEC’s persistent failure to maintain oversight of our campaign finance laws has deprived the public of information about the special interests and megadonors who are funding party committees’ special-purpose accounts. CLC and OpenSecrets are stepping up to prod the FEC into action to promote more accountability, ensuring that all Americans get the transparency they deserve.

Brendan is a Senior Communications Manager for Campaign Finance and Ethics issues at CLC.