It has come to this: The chairman of the Federal Election Commission and a fellow Democratic commissioner have filed a petition asking their own agency to do its job.
Don’t hold your breath.
It’s not news that the campaign finance system is out of control. It’s not news that the FEC has watched, haplessly, as candidates and their super PACs have made a mockery of individual contribution limits and as a torrent of unreported “dark money” sweeps through a system premised on disclosure.
The conventional narrative places the blame on the Supreme Court and its 2010 Citizens United ruling, which, along with subsequent decisions, paved the way to unlimited independent expenditures by corporations and bands of wealthy individuals (via super PACs).
But this account both overstates the ruling’s significance and fails to hold the FEC to task for failing, even in the difficult post-Citizens United legal landscape, to perform its enforcement and regulatory functions.
Ha and ha.
Disclosure has become more or less optional. If you want to influence an election and don’t want your fingerprints on the spending, just employ the mechanism of a nonprofit organization operating under the fiction that it is a “social welfare organization” for which politics is not the primary activity. Such “dark money” accounted for nearly one-third of outside spending in 2012.
A functional FEC – the ultimate bureaucratic oxymoron – could have averted
But since about 2008, the previous era of FEC gridlock has begun to look like the golden age of activist enforcement. Republican commissioners selected by Sen. Mitch McConnell, an ardent foe of campaign finance, have essentially balked at doing anything but the most skeletal enforcement and regulation – and that may be a charitable assessment. One measure: The agency collected under $600,000 in fines last year, less than half the 2013 total and a record low, according to the New York Times.
“We’re heading into an election where we know we’re going to see hundreds of millions of dollars raised and spent in ways designed to keep the American people in the dark about where the money is going to be coming from,” Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub told me. “Candidates are interacting with outside spending groups in ways that defy any rational definition of what coordination and independence mean. And here at the FEC we couldn’t even find agreement that foreign pornographers shouldn’t be spending money to influence American voters.”
Hence the extraordinary move by Ravel and Weintraub to prod their own agency. They ask it to write rules to ensure “dark money” disclosure and super-PAC independence.
Washington Post Writers Group