Thanks, Citizens United! FEC Broken, Perhaps Beyond Repair

Thanks, Citizens United! FEC Broken, Perhaps Beyond Repair

This truly disturbing article on the FEC means watchdog groups are going to be even more critical to a democratic outcome in 2014 and possibly 2016.

As the nation heads into what will undoubtedly be the most expensive midterm election in history and a 2016 presidential election that, in no small way, has already begun, the FEC is rotting from the inside out.

Bitter ideological warfare among commissioners and congressional and White House indifference have yielded an agency less able to fulfill its stated mission: to “prevent corruption in the federal campaign process by administering, enforcing and formulating policy.”

I witnessed this firsthand last month when I raised the alarm over a proposal to exempt the Tea Party from disclosure requirements. A functional body would never have had difficulty with this request. It would have been a simple and unanimous "no". Instead, the panel split right down partisan lines which was a win in effect, but suggests other groups will go back to that well and try to draw water.

But plenty of folks who don’t believe them. The roots of the agency’s dysfunction remain in place, reformers and some former commissioners argue. Only wholesale reforms, they say, could pull the FEC from plunging into irrelevancy.

“The commission just seems to look inward and almost wonder aloud if a decision has an ideological impact, and if so, they shy away from it,” said Frank P. Reiche, a Republican who served as an FEC commissioner from 1979 to 1985. “It’s sad—very sad—and the agency is almost doomed to failure for carrying out its statutory mission unless reform measures are implemented and adopted by Congress.”

The report exposes several serious problems at the FEC, but with the Congress we have it's doubtful they'll be fixed.

  • The commission over the past year has reached a paralyzing all-time low in its ability to reach consensus, stalling action on dozens of rulemaking, audit and enforcement matters, some of which are years old.
  • Despite an explosion in political spending hastened by key Supreme Court decisions, the agency’s funding has remained flat for five years and staffing levels have fallen to a 15-year low.
  • Analysts charged with scouring disclosure reports to ensure candidates and political committees are complying with laws have a nearly quarter-million-page backlog. Commissioners themselves are grappling with nearly 270 unresolved enforcement cases.
  • Staff morale has plummeted as key employees have fled and others question whether their work remains relevant. Among top FEC jobs currently unfilled or filled on an “acting” basis: general counsel, associate general counsel for policy, associate general counsel for litigation, chief financial officer and accounting director. The staff director doubles as IT director.

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Watchdog groups like Open Secrets are going to be critical if we hope to have any transparency going forward in 2014. Clearly there are systemic issues Congress needs to deal with, but if it doesn't benefit Republicans, I tend to doubt they will.

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