Federal Politics

Published — November 20, 2018

Democrats plan ‘aggressive’ oversight of Federal Election Commission

Among their concerns: agency vacancies, campaign finance law enforcement.

This article is co-published with the Buffalo News.

Introduction

For most of this decade, Congress has all but ignored the perpetually gridlocked Federal Election Commission, which exists to enforce and regulate the nation’s campaign finance laws.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., (left) speaks on Capitol Hill on June 19, 2018. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., (right) gestures while speaking before the California Democrats State Convention on Feb. 27, 2016, in San Jose, Calif. (Jacquelyn Martin, Ben Margot/AP)

No longer, two Democratic congressional representatives tell the Center for Public Integrity. The bipartisan FEC is broken and needs fixing, they argue.

“In the next Congress, we will be conducting aggressive oversight and pursuing legislative reform so we can finally have an FEC that’s fulfilling its mission of fighting corruption,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a member and potential chairwoman next year of the Committee on House Administration, which has jurisdiction over the FEC.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., concurred.

“We clearly need to have an oversight hearing on the FEC,” said Raskin, also a member of the Committee on House Administration. “We need to shine a spotlight on dysfunction at the FEC.”

Whether House Democrats’ efforts can go beyond spotlight-shining is unclear: Republicans, who generally oppose strict campaign finance laws and regulations, will next year control the U.S. Senate.

But the prospect of new attention on the FEC comes as Democrats are poised to lead the U.S. House for the first time since 2011 — the most recent year a House committee conducted any kind of FEC oversight hearing— and are primed to widely deploy oversight, investigation and subpoena powers that come with such leadership. (The current Republican-led Committee on House Administration last year flirted with conducting an FEC oversight hearing, but it never followed through.)

FEC Chairwoman Caroline Hunter, R, says she’s “always happy to speak to Congress.” Vice Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, D, concurred: “We welcome the opportunity.”

If Lofgren and company summon Hunter and Weintraub, along with Republican Commissioner Matthew Petersen and independent Commissioner Steven Walther, to Capitol Hill, there will likely be much for them to discuss.

That’s because the FEC’s conservative and liberal commissioners disagree on numerous issues concerning election law and money, from defending against foreign incursions to policing digital political advertisements.

Perhaps the thorniest issue of all is “dark money,” or secret political cash that can’t be traced to a human source. It’s nevertheless used by certain nonprofit groups, and increasingly, by lightly regulated super PACs, to advocate for and against political candidates.

The FEC is doing its job, Hunter said. “Political committees register and report with the FEC. Groups that aren’t political committees don’t have to report all their donors. That’s the way the law is written,” she said.

But that’s not the only interpretation.

“This is a controversial area and one where we disagree,” countered Weintraub, who believes the FEC should more actively regulate political money. She has frequently clashed with Hunter on such matters, particularly in the years following the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which allowed corporations, unions and certain nonprofits to spend unlimited amounts of money to directly promote or attack political candidates.

Congressional Democrats are also likely to scrutinize the FEC’s internal affairs at a time when they plan to propose sweeping changes to federal campaign finance and ethics laws — laws the FEC in part administers.

To date, only four of the FEC’s six commissioner slots are filled and each of the four continue serving despite their six-year terms having long ago expired.

The loss of any one remaining commissioner for any reason temporary or permanent would largely render the agency inoperable for lack of a quorum: no official meetings, no rulemakings, no penalties for breaking the law.

President Donald Trump has nominated just one person — conservative Texas attorney and Trump campaign supporter Trey Trainor — to the FEC, and Trainor’s nomination has been in limbo for more than 14 months because the U.S. Senate has not yet conducted a confirmation hearing or vote.

Among the FEC’s five highest-ranking staff positions, two (general counsel and chief financial officer) are occupied by “acting” officials. Another two (staff director and chief information officer) are occupied by the same person, Alec Palmer. The FEC’s inspector general position, meanwhile, has been altogether vacant since Lynne McFarland retired in March 2017. The deputy inspector general, Cam Thurber, left the FEC earlier this month, leaving the agency’s internal watchdog without leadership.

In a statement, the FEC said it “should be in a position to announce a new appointment shortly” for the vacant inspector general position.

The FEC did receive some good news recently when the federal government’s annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey found agency employees are significantly happier with their work than they used to be.

The survey’s “global satisfaction index,” in which government employees grade their workplace on factors such as leadership, fairness, supportiveness and cooperation, puts the FEC at 53 percent in 2018. That’s up from 45 percent in 2017 and a five-year low of 35 percent in 2016.

The bad news?

The FEC still ranks near the bottom for employee satisfaction among 28 “small” government agencies with 100 to 999 employees, only edging out the Federal Labor Relations Authority (52 percent), Selective Service System (50 percent), Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (48 percent) and Export-Import Bank of the United States (40 percent). The small agency average is 67 percent.

In a joint statement, the FEC’s four commissioners attributed the improvement in staff satisfaction to “concerted efforts over the past year to have more engagement by management through increased meetings, ranging from small get-togethers to all-hands across divisions. The survey reflects that staff seem to feel more engaged and informed.”  

The commissioners also said a move earlier this year to a new and more modern headquarters near Union Station in Washington, D.C., has strengthened morale.

Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents many FEC staffers, agreed the new agency workspace — and staffers’ input on its form and finish — has been a boon for FEC employee job satisfaction.

But, “FEC employees see that there is still a long way to go,” Reardon said.

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