When An Oversight Hearing Becomes An Oversight

House Judiciary Committee Hallway

Definition of oversight [ˈəʊvəˌsaɪt]  n.

1. supervision

2. an omission or mistake, esp one made through failure to notice something

Today the House Administration Subcommittee on Elections held what was labeled an “oversight” hearing of the Federal Election Commission, the agency charged with administering and enforcing the nation’s federal campaign finance laws.  No doubt, an oversight hearing is long overdue.  But to call what happened today fulfillment of the congressional responsibility to ensure that executive branch agencies are doing their job is a stretch.

No outside witnesses were allowed to testify before the Subcommittee.  That means the Subcommittee heard no other voices than the Commissioners themselves.

In the case of the FEC, this is particularly troublesome because the FEC is the “cop on the block” overseeing the same politicians who are asking the questions.  Not only is this is a closed loop, but having only Members of Congress raising issues of those charged with enforcing the law concerning them is not going to elicit tough questions.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the hearing was dominated by self-interested questions from Members seeking even less rigorous enforcement of the laws that regulate their campaigns—barely touching on any of the myriad important legal issues that matter to the public and the integrity of our elections.

The FEC is a notably dysfunctional agency whose Commissioners are de facto selected by the congressional leadership–the quintessential captive agency.  Since its inception, a principal qualification for nomination and confirmation has been party loyalty.  In its 35 year history, the agency has compiled a record that first and foremost protects the Democratic and Republican parties and not the interests of the American public. 

And President Obama does not have clean hands in this venue.  Five of the six current Commissioners’ terms have expired.  The President has not put forward his proposed replacements.  The one name he put forward in 2009 was a labor lawyer who has made a career opposing important campaign finance laws.

In the last several years, this bad situation has gotten much worse as the Commission now has three Republicans who are ideologically opposed to the laws they are constitutionally bound to enforce.  No one on the Subcomittee even bothered to challenge these three Commissioners on this blaring inconsistency.  Instead, several Congressmen (with hundreds of thousands of dollars in their campaign coffers allowing them to hire the best legal talent in Washington) lectured the assembled Commissioners about the supposed hardships facing candidates for federal office in complying with the law.  One Member even told the Commissioners they don’t matter in Washington.  Nice to know that the one agency that is supposed to police the politicians is viewed as irrelevant by the politicians. 

This hearing today was unfortunately smoke and mirrors that allowed the use of data and jargon to obfuscate the FEC’s woeful performance and the real truth about the FEC’s failure to enforce our nation’s campaign finance laws.


To read the comments filed with the Committee today by the Campaign Legal Center & Democracy 21, which reveals the reality of the dysfunctional FEC as opposed to the sideshow display in the hearing, click here.