Reform Advocates’ Elusive Goal: Fix the FEC

Reform Advocates’ Elusive Goal: Fix the FEC

(Photo: AP/CQ Roll Call/Tom Williams)

Campaign-finance reform advocates hold out zero hope that the current Congress will overhaul the rules, but they have nevertheless unveiled a plan that sketches out their ideal vision for tightening up federal election law enforcement.

On Tuesday, Senator Tom Udall, of New Mexico, introduced a bill that would kill the Federal Election Commission and replace it with a new agency that is “empowered to crack down on campaign finance violations,” according to a statement. A cadre of pro-reform advocacy groups is now calling on other senators to support the legislation, dubbed the Federal Election Administration Act.

“The Federal Election Commission is a failed, dysfunctional agency that does not enforce or properly interpret the nation’s campaign finance laws,” the groups wrote in a letter to U.S. senators this week. “As a result, campaigns, political operatives, parties and independent spenders know they can operate with impunity and without consequences for campaign-finance violations. This has created the modern political equivalent of the Wild West without a sheriff.”

Replacing the FEC with a stronger agency, like a Federal Election Administration, isn’t a new idea. Republican Senator John McCain, of Arizona, introduced a similar bill back in 2007, as did former Wisconsin Democratic Senator Russ Feingold in 2009. Both times, though, the legislation went nowhere.

“I’m not arguing that anything is going to happen overnight,” Fred Wertheimer, who heads Democracy 21, one of the reform groups backing the bill, told the Prospect. “This presents a marker that’s on the table and can begin educating people about how we can reform the FEC. One of the purposes is to start a discussion; you don’t get much attention inside Congress on this issue.”

As the groups wrote, “The legislation addresses major reasons for the failure of the current FEC, including the ineffectual structure and cumbersome procedures of the Commission, the politicization of the appointment of commissioners, the lack of effective enforcement powers and the denial of adequate resources for the agency.”

The new proposed agency would instead consist of five commissioners—appointed by the president—including one chairperson who steers the agency for a 10-year term while the other four officials, theoretically two Democrats and two Republicans, serve staggered, six-year appointments. This design sets out to addresses what critics say is the major pitfall of the FEC: that an even number of Democratic and Republican commissioners is prone to deadlock along party lines.

Additionally, administrative law judges would be responsible for hearing and deciding campaign-finance enforcement cases, eliminating the possibility for potential violations to become embroiled in political infighting on the commission.

Finally, a nonpartisan “blue ribbon advisory panel” would be responsible for recommending commission appointees to the president, a provision that sets out to curtail the politicization of the current FEC nomination process.

Given that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rabidly opposes bolstering campaign-finance laws, the bill stands little chance of gaining any traction—at least in this Congress. But when a pathway toward reform presents itself, advocates say, they want to be ready.

“We’re going to reach a point where the need for reform is going to be overwhelming and real fights for reform will occur,” Wertheimer says. “When that happens, part of comprehensive reform needs to include overhauling the FEC.”