Gridlock paralyzes the Federal Election Commission

It’s getting hard to find words to capture how complete is the collapse of the legal structure that was designed to regulate money in politics.

The latest chapter was captured in a New York Times story over the weekend about the dysfunction of the Federal Election Commission, the agency created in big bipartisan post-Watergate law to monitor and enforce the various new requirements to limit how much individuals, corporations and labor unions could spend to influence campaigns and force disclosure of who was funding whom and with how much.

By law, the six-member commission was designed to always contain three Republicans and three Democrats. You can easily imagine the laudable purpose of such a rule, but the architects of the law did not foresee the 21st Century collapse of the ability of Democrats and Republicans to work together. Here’s an excerpt from the Times story that captures the current state of play:

“The likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim,” Ann M. Ravel, the [FEC] chairwoman, said in an interview. “I never want to give up, but I’m not under any illusions. People think the F.E.C. is dysfunctional. It’s worse than dysfunctional.”

Her unusually frank assessment reflects a worsening stalemate among the agency’s six commissioners. They are perpetually locked in 3-to-3 ties along party lines on key votes because of a fundamental disagreement over the mandate of the commission, which was created 40 years ago in response to the political corruption of Watergate.

Some commissioners are barely on speaking terms, cross-aisle negotiations are infrequent, and with no consensus on which rules to enforce, the caseload against violators has plummeted.

The F.E.C.’s paralysis comes at a particularly critical time because of the sea change brought about by the Supreme Court’s decision in 2010 in the Citizens United case, which freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited funds in support of political candidates. Billionaire donors and “super PACs” are already gaining an outsize role in the 2016 campaign, and the lines have become increasingly stretched and blurred over what presidential candidates and political groups are allowed to do.

“The few rules that are left, people feel free to ignore,” said Ellen L. Weintraub, a Democratic commissioner.

Republican members of the commission see no such crisis. They say they are comfortable with how things are working under the structure that gives each party three votes. No action at all, they say, is better than overly aggressive steps that could chill political speech…

“Congress set this place up to gridlock,” Lee E. Goodman, a Republican commissioner, said in an interview. “This agency is functioning as Congress intended. The democracy isn’t collapsing around us.”

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/04/2015 - 10:53 am.

    Step 1–break the systemStep

    Step 1–break the system

    Step 2–complain about how the system doesn’t work

    Repeat step 1 and 2 until…

    Step 3–do whatever you want

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/04/2015 - 11:21 am.

    I can’t improve

    …on Neal Rovick’s comment. I’m also not surprised that it’s the Republican commissioners who think the system is working just fine, and as intended…

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/04/2015 - 01:15 pm.

    The Watergate excuse

    Campaign finance laws have always been unconstitutional, and SCOTUS admitted as much in Citizens United. The “political corruption of Watergate” had nothing to do with campaign fund-raising but the democrats leaped at the opportunity to hamstring what they viewed as a republican party funded by rich fat cats.

    The republican party, embarrassed and chastened over Nixon’s malfeasance, went along to get along and it took 40 years to set matters right again. But commissioner Goodman is right. Government governs best that governs least.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/07/2015 - 06:49 am.


    We need to rework the paradigm. We need to find a way to cover elections, and to run elections, such that money doesn’t matter. Assuming that’s what we want. That’s a discussion media organizations should have, and one that it would be nice if all of us had.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/08/2015 - 01:23 pm.

      media organizations

      Of course, media organizations profit from election spending,
      so they’d be working against their own interests.

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