The FEC’s Problems

June 19, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

Assume general agreement that the Federal Election Commission is putting on a poor show nowadays.  The Commissioners are snarling at one another, tweeting out their grievances, withholding simple courtesies, and just snappish.

Now Brad Smith rightly counsels that we not overstate the significance of this.  It may go too far to say that the FEC is the most dysfunctional agency or, as one Commissioner has suggested, “worse than dysfunctional.”  We are seeing mainly a case of frayed nerves and personality conflicts among administrators who are under constant attack for being unable to agree on difficult issues.   The Supreme Court disagrees on those same issues, and the Justices can get testy, but they are saved from the charge of “dysfunction” because there are nine, not eight, Justices, and they can get to 5-4 and issue decisions.

But the open, increasingly personal squabbling, while uncomfortable to watch, is not all there is to the story.  It has led a form of “acting out” by Commissioners in the forms of procedural shenanigans, furtive and open uses of the press to score rhetorical points, and questionable characterizations of the issues before them (such as the absurd debate yesterday over whether some Commissioners were denying that others were people).  The personal and ideological conflicts have come to be expressed in administrative behaviors that some may find difficult to reconcile with a core understanding of the Commissioners’ official responsibilities.

Few can know what is really going inside the agency, and no doubt the blame for the conduct here can be in various ways shared all around. But the FEC does have a responsibility for exercising good judgment and good faith in following its statutory and internally prescribed procedures, and in communicating clearly and honestly with the public about its work. That much should be possible, even if the Commissioners can be excused for failing to agree on hard issues, such as controversial applications of the “coordination” rules.

Commissioner Walther yesterday appealed to his colleagues to show respect for one another’s views. That is good advice, a good start.  But the question is whether the Commissioners who are struggling with this issue of mutual respect can still find a way to do their jobs.   If they conclude that they can’t, they always have the option of resignation.


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