Caroline Hunter’s six-year term on the Federal Election Commission expires today. If recent history is any guide, what will happen next is ... nothing. Of the six seats on the FEC, which interprets and administers the nation’s election laws, one is vacant and the others are occupied by commissioners with expired terms. It’s tempting to conclude from this that inertia dominates the FEC but that would be mistaken: The commission is more destructive than mere inertia could possibly allow.
The most recent effort to instill even rudimentary accountability at the agency took place four years ago, in May 2009, when President Barack Obama nominated labor lawyer John Sullivan to a seat. Sullivan’s nomination sank in senatorial quicksand, and he never made it to the FEC. His nomination represents the bulk of the Obama administration’s work in the field of campaign finance reform.
Given its propensity for deadlock, with the panel’s three Republicans pitted against its three (and now, due to vacancy, only two) Democrats, the FEC is arguably the most dysfunctional agency in the federal government. As Bloomberg News has reported, some political organizations don’t even bother to report their political ad spending to the FEC, in blatant defiance of federal law. We owe the lack of disclosure by super- PACs not to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which expressly called for disclosure, but to a rogue ruling by the FEC that flouted the clear intent of campaign finance law.
Last June, Obama political adviser David Axelrod said the president would push for campaign finance reform in a second term. “I hope that when we win this election,” Axelrod said, “one thing we can do is bring some common sense back to our system.”
If Obama is serious about campaign laws and ethics, he must confront the void at the FEC. He can start by nominating new commissioners who at least nominally support the FEC’s mandate to enforce the nation’s campaign laws. Such nominations would surely generate a fight in the Senate, where Republican leader Mitch McConnell has long been the most vocal and vehement opponent of campaign finance regulation and, not coincidentally, of a functional FEC.
If the battle never rises above an insiders’ skirmish, McConnell will surely succeed in killing action. To prevent such an outcome, Obama would have to wage an extended fight in public. Even then, prospects for success are dim.
Of course, the administration could escalate the battle by embracing a drastic option. It could urge Congress to rid the FEC of its perpetually gridlocked commissioners and appoint a single administrator to enforce the laws. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is run by a director appointed to a 10-year term, stretching over at least two presidencies, is one obvious model.
It’s possible, of course, to have too much oversight of campaigns just as we now have too little. But that notion seems fantastical today. In the Wild West of American political campaigns, the sheriff is drunk and passed out. For the forces of law and order to have a chance, we’ll need a new sobriety at the FEC -- or perhaps even a new FEC.
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