The FEC and the Draining of Swamps

March 9, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

Former FEC Commissioner Ann Ravel left a lengthy note as she left town to explain how bad things had gotten at the FEC. Her agency would not help drain the swamp; a bloc of Commissioners had scuttled the agency’s mission to enforce campaign finance disclosure and limits. Republicans promptly disagreed. So the Democrats and Republicans, at odds over enforcement policy, also disagree about the extent and seriousness of their disagreements.

With the agency down to 5, and most of the Commissioners’ terms having expired, the question is what happens post-Ravel. There has been talk that the Trump Administration may make a full round of nominations and look to reshape the agency. Speculations have included the possibility that the Administration would end the long-standing deference to the other party in the nomination of half of the Commission and perhaps stack the deck, maybe by putting Independents in place of the Democrats. The law limits parties to half the seats; it does not guarantee a party any of the seats.

This heavy-handed maneuver seems unlikely, especially if Senator McConnell has anything to say about it, which he does. He has seemed committed to the practice of giving each party a check on the other. And it is hardly clear why, if the FEC poses little threat to Republicans and their constituencies on the issues they most care about, McConnell and his colleagues would want to open up a fight on this distant front when other battles raging around them have a greater call on their time and attention.

The more interesting question is what role the FEC–campaign finance–plays in the swamp-draining Trump platform. The Ravel farewell report declares the “unlikelihood” that the FEC will help with the draining activity. The Administration might be inclined to agree.

The Trump “populist” reform perspective has limited room for campaign finance regulation, much more for the lobbying restrictions set forth in the Executive Order issued on January 28. Lobbying controls slide neatly into a narrative about a government that needs to be purged of insidious “establishment” interests working against the national will. By contrast, the FEC and federal regulation of campaign finance are seen in this narrative to represent that very establishment: it is a host to those interests.

In recent years, the critics of the agency, including Republican Commissioners, have selected the supposed slapping of controls on the Internet as the prime example what the agency, if unchecked, would do. The government through the FEC would somehow try to micromanage, with the aim of narrowing, the most open of all channels for political speech. This is a sort of populist critique. But it leads to the conclusion that President Trump’s and his party’s policy toward the FEC will be more of the same: expect nothing from it, want nothing from it, do nothing with it. As they see things, the FEC is the swamp–but it is for the most part already drained.

Leave a Reply