The Federal Election Commission, the nonpartisan body tasked with enforcing campaign finance laws, has been effectively sidelined, throwing the resolution of hundreds of cases – let alone November’s election – into question.
Of the six seats on the FEC, just three are currently occupied, meaning the group couldn’t call a meeting even if it wanted to – a quorum of four commissioners is required for that.
The LA Times reported on Wednesday that the president’s nominee to fill the critical fourth vacancy hasn’t even been submitted to the Senate for approval. Given that the last nominee – submitted by President Donald Trump in 2017 – wasn’t confirmed until May, it could be a long time before the FEC is up and running again.
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This doesn’t bode well for November’s election, in which both parties have pre-emptively accused the other of trying to rig the vote. Some 333 cases are awaiting an FEC hearing as of April. About 90 of those are within 18 months of expiring under the statute of limitations.
Former Democratic FEC commissioner Ann Ravel told the Times this gridlock has emboldened campaign finance violators, who “knew that they could flagrantly violate the law and that there would be absolutely no consequences.”
When it’s functioning, the FEC consists of six commissioners, generally three hailing from both major political parties. They are tasked with investigating illegal campaign spending and recommend enforcement actions where necessary.
Democrats blame its descent into dysfunction on Republicans hostile to the idea of limiting campaign spending, while Republicans claim Democrats are trying to stifle free speech in the form of campaign contributions.
The mass exodus from the FEC began following Trump’s election: Ravel departed in 2017, followed by the Republicans Lee Goodman in 2018 and Matthew Petersen in 2019. With just three members left, the body was effectively sidelined from August 2019 until May, when the Senate finally confirmed Trump’s 2017 Republican nominee James Trainor. However, the departure of Republican Caroline Hunter last month – for a nonprofit run by GOP campaign benefactor extraordinaire Charles Koch, no less – placed it back on ice.
One could be forgiven for not knowing there is an agency in Washington tasked with enforcing campaign finance law, given the general reluctance to impose any limits on money in politics. Presidential elections have broken spending records year upon year with the billions poured out to carry candidates into office, a process that kicked into high gear when 2010’s Citizens United Supreme Court decision opened the floodgates for unlimited corporate donations. That decision facilitated the rise of the super PAC as a clever workaround for the remaining restrictions on funding political campaigns.
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While the FEC has been locked in bureaucratic suspended animation, several controversial moves have come and gone, faced with mild protest from campaign finance reform advocates. Failed Democratic candidate Michael Bloomberg transferred $18 million from his campaign into the Democratic National Committee after ending his campaign in March, raising more than a few eyebrows. Fellow failed candidate turned CNN commentator Andrew Yang’s cash-for-votes sweepstakes offering $12,000 to 10 lucky families also left Americans wondering if anyone was minding the store.
Democrats seeking an end to the deadlock have proposed reshaping the commission into a five-person body, with the tie breaking vote held by an independent or third-party member and vacancies filled by a “panel of experts” instead of the president or Congress. However, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell – no fan of restrictions on campaign spending – has made it clear the House campaign finance and ethics reform bill that includes the FEC revamp will not hit the Senate floor while he’s in charge.
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