Gridlock and Dysfunction on Display at FEC Oversight Hearing

November 4, 2011

For years, campaign finance reform advocates have decried the paralysis of the Federal Election Commission. The FEC’s three Democratic Commissioners and three Republican Commissioners routinely gridlock on even the least controversial enforcement matters — resulting in utterly toothless enforcement of our nation’s campaign finance laws. The roots of the Commission’s ineffectiveness were on full display in Congress yesterday, where the members of the Federal Election Commission testified before a House Subcommittee but could scarcely simulate functionality for the purposes of the hearing.

The FEC is charged with enforcing the nation’s campaign finance laws. To take any action, from routine enforcement to rulemaking to the issuance of advisory opinions, the FEC requires a four-vote majority. Because the Commission is composed of three members from each party, its habitual 3-3 votes along partisan lines mire the Commission in inaction.

Despite the desperate need for the FEC to update disclosure rules in light of loopholes created by Citizens United v. FEC, the Commission has twice this year deadlocked on votes to merely initiate the rulemaking process. The Commissioners have routinely ignored the recommendations of their own non-partisan staff, voting 3-3 against penalties for blatant malfeasance.

The behavior of the Commissioners at Thursday’s hearing mimicked the dysfunction that regularly governs FEC activity. When asked if they felt current disclosure law is adequate, the Republicans said, yes, the Democrats, no.  When asked if a request for additional information from someone filing a report with Commission constituted an act of enforcement, the Commissioners again divided along partisan lines.

Unfortunately, this oversight hearing was a lost opportunity. While the hearing caricatured the tendencies of the agency, the subcommittee members failed to probe the sources of gridlock on the Commission. Instead, they spent an inordinate amount of time squabbling amongst themselves and with the Commissioners about procedural matters concerning the agency.

The blame for FEC dysfunction lies with the agency, Congress, and President Obama. Five members of the Commission currently languish as lame ducks. Their terms have expired, and they cannot be reappointed, but President Obama has made a lackluster effort to replace them, nominating no Commissioners since 2009. Fixing the FEC will take more than a Congressional hearing. President Obama needs to fill the vacancies on the FEC now with members who, regardless of partisan affiliation, believe in the mission of the agency — to enforce the nation’s campaign finance laws.