Editorial: FEC Challenge

Posted February 24, 2009 at 1:00pm

From its inception, it’s been clear that the Federal Election Commission was designed by its Congressional creators to be a failure at truly enforcing campaign finance laws. Editorial headlines like “FECkless” have become a cliché.

But now that Democrats are fully in control of the political branches of government and are at least rhetorically committed to campaign finance reform — Republicans, in the main, never have been — the time for change has come.

Seven leading reform watchdog groups on Feb. 12 issued a withering critique of the agency — declaring it “often … largely dysfunctional” — and called for Congress to create a new agency that has the power to adjudicate violations of finance law and impose appropriate sanctions, subject to judicial review.

At present, other than imposing fines for minor reporting violations, the commission’s only power is to file a civil suit against a suspected violator — and only then after it has conducted a thorough investigation, attempted to arrive at conciliated resolution of the violation and initiated another process of brief-writing and argumentation. It takes years.

The commission also has been starved for funds, and its basic structure was designed for stalemate. The lack of funding means that the reams of federal campaign disclosure forms filed each quarter get audited only when a flag is thrown — rather than on a random basis to keep campaigns honest.

A case crying out for audit now was unearthed by Roll Call last week — the multiple errors, misinformation and mysteries in reporting the identities, employers and contributions of figures connected to the PMA Group.

That disintegrating lobbying firm, raided by the FBI in November, specialized in securing defense earmarks from — and bundling campaign contributions for — top House defense appropriator John Murtha (D-Pa.) and other Members.

Even before Congress gets around to creating a new FEC, the seven watchdogs — including Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, the Campaign Legal Center and the Brennan Center at New York University Law School — called on President Barack Obama to institute a new system for appointing FEC commissioners.

Congress created a bipartisan six-member commission that requires four votes to act, meaning that commissioners of either party can render the body impotent. Moreover, while commissioners formally are nominated by the president, in fact the nominees have been selected by Democratic and GOP leaders in Congress. The regulated are choosing their regulators.

The watchdog groups propose that Obama establish an advisory group made up of distinguished Republicans, Democrats and Independents to recommend nominees who believe in campaign law enforcement — and then take over the appointment process instead of acting as a mere pass-through for Congress.

This is a challenge for Democrats, who have always claimed to support limits on donations and expenditures. Do they really — or have they been content to let Republicans oppose the limits, stifle enforcement and take the heat?