The Federal Election Commission is a favorite whipping boy for lawmakers of all stripes. Those who would like to see less regulation of federal campaigns have derided it as an organization that creates work for itself in order to justify funding increases for its operations. Proponents of stricter regulation of campaign activity and funding attack it as asleep at the switch or a “toothless tiger.” After the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, Senators and House Members alike proclaimed that reform of the FEC was their next priority.
We’re still waiting for that reform effort to materialize. In the meantime, the FEC faces a heavy burden. One of the tasks currently on the front burner for the agency is writing regulations that will determine how Internet campaigning will be governed — a rulemaking process with far-reaching and potentially dramatic implications for the future of politics.
But while Congress has been quick to criticize the FEC (and this editorial page has certainly taken its fair share of shots at it as well), leaders of both parties have given short shrift to the one area in which they can have the greatest impact on making the body effective. Right now, four of the six current commissioners are serving on expired terms. And even if, as some in the reform community were wringing their hands about last week, President Bush offered nominations to the six-member panel as the Senate wound down its business before the August recess, in anticipation of making recess appointments to the body, even that move would miss the point. Not surprisingly, the names that have made the rounds in campaign finance circles as potential nominees are closely associated with either their respective parties’ political committees or their interest group allies.
Certainly, Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress are well within their rights to put forward candidates for the FEC who they believe will protect their interests, and given the political climate in Washington, it would be naive to expect anything different. We, of course, would prefer to see men and women who would look beyond the interest of one party and try to objectively interpret and apply the laws governing campaigns.
But stepping away from that almost impossible-to-imagine scenario, would it be such a burden for Congress to at least hold hearings on the FEC candidates they recommend to the president, allowing those interested in the governance of campaigning a glimpse at how they might operate once on the panel?
Over the past decade, one-third of FEC commissioners have received recess appointments, meaning that Congress undertook no discussion whatsoever of their merits. If Members of Congress want to criticize the FEC’s performance, perhaps they could take a more active — and thoughtful — role in determining who sits on it.