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Campaign Finance Onus Placed on Agencies

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Democrats on a campaign finance task force appointed by Sen. Charles Schumer (left) and chaired by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse have called on agencies to take up new regulations.

Democrats on Capitol Hill have called for hearings and legislation to rein in unrestricted campaign money, but the real action is at a handful of federal agencies being bombarded with letters from lawmakers, lobbyists and activists.

The shift in focus to agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the IRS — not the typical locus of political money fights — reflects a tacit acknowledgement that campaign finance legislation is going nowhere on Capitol Hill.

“With the current status quo in the Senate, it is very difficult to move on this issue,” said Julie Edwards, a spokeswoman for Sen. Jeff Merkley. The Oregon Democrat joined with seven other Senators in a letter last week urging FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski to act on proposed rules that would require TV broadcasters to shift from paper to online disclosure reports for campaign ad buys.

Merkley is one of a half-dozen Democrats meeting regularly on a Senate campaign finance task force appointed by Rules and Administration Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and chaired by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.).

Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.) and Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), also task force members, spearheaded letters to the IRS and the FEC earlier this month. In January, Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.) rounded up more than a dozen signatures from fellow Senate Democrats to the SEC. The Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling to deregulate political money has spurred Democrats into action, raising the issue’s visibility and sparking a recent wave of big GOP fundraising.

The letters call on agency heads to take up new regulations that would curb political spending from a variety of angles. These include better enforcement of IRS rules that limit campaign activity by tax-
exempt groups, writing new FEC rules to improve disclosure for super PACs and SEC rules to require corporations to disclose their political spending to shareholders.

The FCC is expected to act as early as March on a proposed rule that would replace the decades-old, paper-based filing system for public disclosures by TV broadcasters with standardized, online reporting.

Public interest advocates have long argued that the broadcasters’ “public-inspection file,” which includes details about the size and timing of political ads, should be available online. At the moment, broadcasters around the country are required only to keep paper records, which must be accessed by visiting the individual TV station in person.

“With campaign season in full swing and new super PACs springing up weekly, the public must have access to information about who is funding these ads,” Merkley and other Senators wrote in last week’s letter to the FCC.

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