I’ve been thinking a lot lately that if you want to examine how our political climate ended up the way it is now, you have to look at the dysfunction of the Federal Election Commission—the federal agency charged with monitoring and holding accountable money in our elections. I personally think a lot of the anger over corruption in Washington and the political media can be traced back to deadlocks and lack of enforcement by the FEC.
The FEC doesn’t make a lot of national news, but believe me, the decisions they are (not) making are influencing the politics that control your community.
A brief history of the FEC
Probably the most famous line from “All the President’s Men”, the movie based on the book by The Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about Watergate, happens in a parking garage. “Follow the Money,” the source (now known to be Mark Felt) tells Bob Woodward.
The scandal, of course, started with a story on a break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate building and ended with the resignation of President Nixon. I think a lot of people forget what happened in between, which was the fact that campaign funds were used to pay off the burglars who broke into the DNC headquarters.
Here’s Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reflecting on their reporting during that time:
In the wake of the scandal, Congress established the Federal Election Commission to keep tabs on the money in our political process. The Federal Election Commission has six members and no more than three can be of the same political party.
So if you’re doing the math—that means at most three Democrats and three Republicans. Given the division in Washington these days, you can imagine how often they agree. Spoiler: It’s never.
What the FEC does
Before I get into the problems with the FEC today I want to outline exactly what this federal agency does. A lot of people get confused with what exactly falls under the enforcement of the FEC. The agency is primarily charged with overseeing and enforcing the activity of campaigns and the use of money in those campaigns. They are not responsible for voter’s rights—that comes under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice. They are not responsible for administrating the actual voting and tally—that comes under the jurisdiction of the states (usually the Secretary of State).
The information about money spent in the campaigns is available to the public. The FEC recently modernized its website to make finding the information more user-friendly. You can find the beta site where they’re testing this model at https://beta.fec.gov.
In my last job I was covering the FEC and nearly every vote would see them deadlock at 3-3. The troubling thing is if we want to “drain the swamp,” this is the agency that could do a lot to get rid of the alligators.
But nearly every enforcement action ended with the two Democrats and one Independent currently on the commission voting yes and the three Republicans voting no.
Last year, “The Daily Show” even did a story about it for which Chair Ann Ravel received a lot of grief from her Republican colleagues.
In my opinion, the criticism of the lack of action by the FEC is warranted. I mean, they once had to broker a compromise over whether to have bagels or donuts at a meeting commemorating the anniversary of the commission.
However, I think the most troubling decision I watched was one with Murray Energy—a coal company in Ohio. I wrote about the decision for The Sunlight Foundation here, but briefly, the commission was examining allegations that during the 2012 presidential election the company forced workers to take a day off without pay and attend a Mitt Romney rally. There were also allegations that employees were forced to make donations to the Republican Party or their jobs would be threatened.
The commission took up a measure to decide whether they should investigate these allegations. Note: Not whether Murray Energy was guilty. Only to allow investigators from the FEC to look into what happened and report back to the FEC.
The measure deadlocked – with the three Republicans voting no.
In my opinion, there are many other issues that need examination and enforcement—mainly the use of anonymous or “dark money” in the election process.
I also think we need clarification from the FEC following the Citizen’s United decision which ruled that corporations have the same rights to free speech as individuals and thus can give unlimited amounts to super PACs. We need the FEC to make some rules about what this means. A foreign national is not allowed to give to a presidential campaign unless he/she is a permanent resident. In a world where we have multi-national corporations and people can quickly establish a company known as an LLC in Delaware, what does that mean?
It leaves a huge loophole that a foreign government wanting to influence an election could walk through. I even spoke before the FEC on behalf of Sunlight last year about how this was a scandal brewing.
Yet, once again, the commission could not agree to open up rule-making to give some direction on this issue.
I think there’s a scandal looming in this area—it’s not a matter of if, but when.
The FEC this week
Most of the commissioners serving on the FEC are doing so on expired terms. It’s just not a priority commission for presidents to make appointments. The commissioners serving now mostly stay out of duty to country and to not upset the power balance on the commission.
Which is why it was shocking this week that Democratic Commissioner Ann Ravel submitted her resignation to the President of the United States and wrote an editorial in The New York Times. She also walked off leaving this report regarding the dysfunction on the commission. It’s worth your time to see all the issues the commission has failed to deal with.
I think the anonymous money and lack of accountability the report refers to is directly responsible for the feeling that things are “corrupt” in Washington and the system is rigged. Anonymous money can buy campaign ads which misrepresent a candidate’s record and those ads can play over and over during a newscast, as well as blanket social media. The public has no idea who is behind such ads and thus, in my opinion, the lines start to blur between this type of media and the product of a newscast. I feel like it is one aspect of many discrediting the work of journalists.
I think the lack of accountability also rightfully feeds the perception that politicians only care about big donors and are corrupt. If we had a strong agency enforcing the rules, perhaps people could have more confidence in the system. If we had more transparency with money, perhaps people would have more confidence that their politicians were acting in their best interest.
Meanwhile, the other big news coming out of the commission this week is the attack on the remaining Democrat on the commission, Commissioner Ellen Weintraub. Following President Trump’s false allegations that people were being bussed in to vote in New Hampshire, Weintraub requested the president provide proof of this. A group called Cause of Action filed an ethics complaint on Weintraub saying she acted in a political manner and outside the jurisdiction of her office.
Weintraub fired back yesterday saying this absolutely is in her purview because if someone is bussing people in to vote then they’re not reporting it on their campaign finance reports, which is under her control.
This boils down to a troubling time for the FEC. President Trump will have to replace Commissioner Ravel. Will he follow tradition and appoint a Democrat or will he choose an Independent in favor of further deregulation of the FEC?
For the longest time I couldn’t see how the commission could get worse than these constant stalemates. Now I can’t decide if a change in power would do exactly that. Nevertheless, it’s something I’ll be watching and I hope others will as well.