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.”