Public Citizen has concluded that the Federal Election Commission is failing.  Its shortcomings are "dramatic and uncharacteristic", because they range across the entire field of their responsibilities in conducting audits; enforcing the law through investigations, settlements and lawsuits; and issuing regulations and advisory opinions.  The Public Citizen analysis is statistical and focuses on vote deadlocks.   The FEC is indeed disagreeing a great deal—about that, there is no doubt.  But is the agency failing or is the old regulatory model collapsing under the pressure of changing law and political practice?

Public Citizen cannot answer this question because it is looking at agency performance in the aggregate.  It is unable, for example, to explain what might be happening in particular cases, or why deadlocks are occurring across various agency functions.  There are certainly instances where the vote for enforcement is as suspect as a vote against it.  The result is still deadlock but the reasons for it are not quite what Public Citizen implies.  Nonetheless, it being assumed that matters could not have gotten this bad without dereliction of duty somewhere, the FEC takes the blame.  It is expected to take up the big issues, such as those involving "coordination" or "dark money", which are precisely the issues over which disagreement is certain to arise.  And so around and around it goes.

One alternative available to the FEC in this period of uncertainty is to commit itself to less controversial but highly productive functions.  Bipartisan suggestions have been made, for example, that it could do better in discharging its disclosure function, and in reforming, as Congress has directed, the operation of its Administrative Fines program. There is value in starting with these basic responsibilities.  To the Commission’s credit, it has initiated a rulemaking to move in this direction.

And on this question of disclosure, there is much to be done, more than suspected by many who hold the view that, for all the discord and disappointment, campaign finance law administration has performed well on public reporting.  Now we have some fresh scholarship by Jennifer Heerwig and Katherine Shaw that subjects this assumption to careful, critical examination.  Jennifer A. Heerwig and Katherine Shaw, Through a Glass Darkly: The Rhetoric and Reality of Campaign Finance Disclosure, Geo. L. J. 1443 (2014).

The State of the Debate

May 18, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

The Supreme Court has been asked to consider whether the Attorney General of California may require tax-exempt organizations to produce donor information normally provided only to the Internal Revenue Service. The petitioner, the Center for Competitive Politics, argues that the Ninth Circuit has improperly upheld this requirement by giving the State ready access to this information on a slim-to-none showing of need.  The Attorney General has asserted that the information will be useful to the State's attempts to enforce the law, such as the protections against self-dealing or improper loans.  Others apparently suspect that there is more going on, namely, a move to discourage the sort of politically shaped tax-exempt activities associated with the Koch brothers.

This is an important case, now before Justice Kennedy.  It is the latest turn in a troubled reform debate.   First there is the fight over disclosure, which is relatively new. For years this was supposed to be the common ground that camps badly divided over other forms of regulation could occupy: but no more.  And just as reform communities have suspected political actors of cheating on the law, engaging in "circumvention,” now skeptics of regulation fear that, in the absence of consensus on legislative reform, state actors are resorting to extralegal administrative remedies.

Over the weekend, on the election law listserv, a snippy exchange quickly developed about the California case and what it represented.  In some part, the views fired back and forth reflected the widespread assumption that positions on reform can be explained primarily by reference to their proponents’ political objectives.  It is believed that reformers want regulation to advance progressive policies, or that their antagonists oppose regulation because they wish to surrender political power to the marketplace.

In the War of FEC Commissioners, a Republican, Lee Goodman, has returned the fire of his colleague Ann Ravel and given his account of whether the agency has failed to enforce the law.  He says it's not so. Much of the time, he writes, they agree, and where they don't, the points of disagreement are focused on large issues like the definition of what constitutes a “political committee.” But he says more, giving examples of what he means, and the additional argumentation is illuminating.

Commissioner Goodman claims that in explaining deadlock, the Democratic side won’t credit their Republican colleagues with principled stands.  He cites Chair Ravel’s vote against continued enforcement of a rule governing paid Internet advertising. It is not up to a Commissioner, Goodman suggests, to use the enforcement process to score a point against a valid regulation or to pursue a respondent who has complied with it.

But he also notes another case of deadlock, which involved the enforcement of the Commission’s "candidate debate" regulations. And this example shows, and to some degree why, the Commissioners tend to fall out when it seems that unity would be within their grasp.

In the course of a week's discussion of the state of the campaign finance law, various descriptions and explanations have been offered.   FEC "paralysis" has led the list, with the level of fines given as evidence, and it has also been suggested that the tenure of former Commissioner McGahn has to be taken in account.

The Meaning of “Paralysis”

National Public Radio devoted an hour of The Diane Rehm Show to a discussion of the state of campaign finance, the question before its invited panel being: what to make of the “paralysis” at the FEC?   Senior election law expert Jan Baran was on one side of the argument; FEC Chair Ann Ravel, Campaign Legal Center President Trevor Potter and New York Times Reporter Eric Lichtblau were on the other.   It was an illuminating exchange—in its way. For if the issue, as the show title affirmed, was administrative “paralysis,” then the answer should be more administrative resolve to do what the law clearly bids the Commissioners to do. The discussion suggested that this view was too simple, but that because it is a simple view, it will have staying power in the coverage of money in this election cycle.

Organized into basic questions and answers, the conversation ran along the following lines:

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In op-eds and interviews, FEC Chair Ravel has chosen a particular course for her one-year term as the agency’s leader.  She is making use of the pulpit she now commands to express her view that the law is going unenforced.  It is question of Republican intransigence, she argues, and the consequences are “destructive to the political process.”  Commissioner Weintraub has advanced the same position. Republicans inside and outside the FEC have strenuously objected to this conclusion and the manner in which she has expressed it.  And they have added to their complaint the allegation that, in a “listening tour” on dark money and a forum organized on the role of women in politics, the Chair has acted outside her mandate and invited the appearance of partisan bias.

This is all very nasty and has led to collective “acting out,” as in the recent dispute over whether to have bagels or donuts at a 40th anniversary event.

Two different claims are getting thrown together in this clash, and separating them out may help focus on what ought to matter here.  One is the contention that the Chair is taking the agency, maybe for political purposes, beyond its proper mandate, and the other is the recurring charge that only one side of the Commission is serious about "enforcing" the law.

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