Democrats On U.S. Federal Election Commission Fighting For Relevance


Forty years ago, in the wake of the Watergate Scandal that had more than a little to do with the amount of money that was involved in American elections at the time, Congress set up a bi-partisan Federal Election Commission to oversee and to an extent control the amount of cash donated to and spent by the campaigns themselves.  In the wake of Watergate, Congress actually passed laws that violated the First Amendment to be able to accomplish that goal.  The most recent attempt was via the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act or McCain-Feingold of 2002.

Watergate itself and the initial attempts to curb the amount of spending during elections were in the days before Political Action Committees (PACs), SuperPACs, Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, and the 2010 Citizens United decision from the U.S. Supreme Court that specifically said that the government, in the form of the FEC, could not restrict the amount of money spent by a non-profit organization or corporation during the election process even within two months of an election, thus actually partially negating the McCain-Feingold Act.  It violated the First Amendment.

Since the Citizens United case, spending and pledges of spending in American elections has exploded, so much so that in the 2016 presidential election, several potential Republican candidates raised thousands of dollars – sometimes millions – in cash  and pledges before declaring their candidacy.  This prompted the current chairperson of the FEC, Silicon Valley lawyer and California ethics crusader, Ann Ravel, one of the three Democrats on the Commission, to write an opinion piece in The Washington Post in March stating that just because one has not declared candidacy for president, does not mean that one is not obviously running for president.  The point was most likely that the early cash raised for the war chests was still subject to FEC oversight even if the candidate hadn’t made it official yet.

What prompted this seems to be the great Republican – Democrat divide at the FEC that has rendered the oversight group “dysfunctional.”  Ravel claims they can get NOTHING done.

“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.”…

…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.

Why that is the case at this point is thanks to the gridlock that Republican commissioner Lee Goodman claims was intended by lawmakers.  The overall Republican contention is that the First Amendment is still the First Amendment.  What is more likely is that the Republican side of the line is more inclined to let non-candidates have their say, and are working to block Democratic attempts to stymie free speech.  As Mr. Goodman says, the Republic (to correct his notion that the USA is a democracy) is not falling apart.  There are fewer fines being levied by the commission because the two sides do not agree very often on what is a violation of federal election communications rules.

A surge in … 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.

Or the Democrats want to meddle because the big money the Koch brothers have pledged toward this election isn’t for their side.

The hopeless political division we have in the United States extends to the Federal Election Commission which was intended to be bipartisan oversight to enforce the campaign finance rules put into place after Watergate.  Of late, the commission’s relevance has come into question as the “rules” and laws pertaining to campaign finance have been declared in violation of free speech.

All this really means is that we are back to the communications free for all originally intended by the founders.  That the elections are awash in cash just demonstrates the stakes as seen by the people involved in politics.


About the Author

Cultural Limits
A resident of Flyover Country, Cultural Limits is a rare creature in American Conservatism - committed to not just small government, Christianity and traditional social roles, but non-profits and high arts and culture. Watching politics, observing human behavior and writing are all long-time interests. In her other life, CL writes romance novels under her nom de plume, Patricia Holden (@PatriciaHoldenAuthor on Facebook), and crochets like a mad woman (designs can be found on Facebook @BohemianFlairCrochet and on Pinterest on the Bohemian Flair Crochet board). In religion, CL is Catholic; in work, the jill of all trades when it comes to fundraising software manipulation and event planning; in play, a classically trained soprano and proud citizen of Cardinal Nation, although, during hockey season, Bleeds Blue. She lives in the Mid-Mississippi River Valley with family and two cute and charming tyrants...make that toy dogs.