FEC paralyzed by Republican Commissioners

On the front page of the Sunday New York Times today is this disheartening report on how campaign finance enforcement has been corrupted from within and completely undermined at the Federal Election Commission. F.E.C. Can’t Curb 2016 Election Abuse, Commission Chief Says:

Screenshot from 2015-05-03 12:40:09The leader of the Federal Election Commission, the agency charged with regulating the way political money is raised and spent, says she has largely given up hope of reining in abuses in the 2016 presidential campaign, which could generate a record $10 billion in spending.

The likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim,” Ann M. Ravel, the chairwoman, said in an interview. “I never want to give up, but I’m not under any illusions. People think the F.E.C. is dysfunctional. It’s worse than dysfunctional.”

Her unusually frank assessment reflects a worsening stalemate among the agency’s six commissioners. They are perpetually locked in 3-to-3 ties along party lines on key votes because of a fundamental disagreement over the mandate of the commission, which was created 40 years ago in response to the political corruption of Watergate.

Some commissioners are barely on speaking terms, cross-aisle negotiations are infrequent, and with no consensus on which rules to enforce, the caseload against violators has plummeted.

The F.E.C.’s paralysis comes at a particularly critical time because of the sea change brought about by the Supreme Court’s decision in 2010 in the Citizens United case, which freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited funds in support of political candidates. Billionaire donors and “super PACs” are already gaining an outsize role in the 2016 campaign, and the lines have become increasingly stretched and blurred over what presidential candidates and political groups are allowed to do.

Watchdog groups have gone to the F.E.C. with complaints that probable presidential candidates like Jeb Bush and Martin O’Malley are skirting finance laws by raising millions without officially declaring that they are considering running.

Ms. Ravel, who led California’s state ethics panel before her appointment as a Democratic member of the commission in 2013, said that when she became chairwoman in December, she was determined to “bridge the partisan gap” and see that the F.E.C. confronted such problems. But after five months, she said she had essentially abandoned efforts to work out agreements on what she saw as much-needed enforcement measures.

Now, she said, she plans on concentrating on getting information out publicly, rather than continuing what she sees as a futile attempt to take action against major violations. She said she was resigned to the fact that “there is not going to be any real enforcement” in the coming election.

The few rules that are left, people feel free to ignore,” said Ellen L. Weintraub, a Democratic commissioner.

Republican members of the commission see no such crisis. They say they are comfortable with how things are working under the structure that gives each party three votes. No action at all, they say, is better than overly aggressive steps that could chill political speech.

“Congress set this place up to gridlock,” Lee E. Goodman, a Republican commissioner, said in an interview. “This agency is functioning as Congress intended. The democracy isn’t collapsing around us.”

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Last fall, Ms. Ravel did join Republicans on the commission — and took some criticism from the left — in a 4-to-2 decision that eased rules growing out of the Citizens United decision and a related case. But she has had little success in persuading Republicans to vote with her on enforcement measures.

She said she was particularly frustrated that Republican commissioners would not support cases against four nonprofit groups — including Crossroads GPS, founded by Karl Rove — accused of improperly using their tax-exempt status for massive and well-financed political campaigns.

A surge in this so-called “dark money” in politics — hundreds of millions of dollars raised by nonprofits, trade associations and other groups that can keep their donations secret — has alarmed campaign-finance reformers who are pushing to make such funding public.

But Mr. Goodman said the problem was exaggerated. He and other Republicans defend their decisions to block many investigations, saying Democrats have pushed cases beyond what the law allows.

“We’re not interested in going after people unless the law is fairly clear, and we’re not willing to take the law beyond where it’s written,” said Caroline C. Hunter, a Republican commissioner. Democrats view the law “more broadly,” she said.

The commission has not always been so hamstrung. In 2006, it unanimously imposed major fines against high-profile groups — liberal and conservative — for breaking campaign finance laws two years earlier by misusing their tax-exempt status for political fund-raising and campaigning. The penalties put political groups on notice, and experts credited them with helping curb similar abuses in the 2008 campaign.

These days, the six commissioners hardly ever rule unanimously on major cases, or even on some of the most minor matters.

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With the commission so often deadlocked, the major fines assessed by the commission dropped precipitously last year to $135,813 from $627,408 in 2013. But like most things at the F.E.C., commissioners differ over how to interpret those numbers.

Republicans say they believe the commission’s efforts to work with political groups on training and compliance have kept campaigns within the legal lines and helped to bring down fines.

The drop in fines “could easily be read as a signal that people are following the law,” said Ms. Hunter, the Republican commissioner.

Ms. Ravel scoffed at that explanation.

“What’s really going on,” she said, “is that the Republican commissioners don’t want to enforce the law, except in the most obvious cases. The rules aren’t being followed, and that’s destructive to the political process.”

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