Tuesday, May 12, 2015

FEC dysfunction a California dream

As the saying goes you can’t swing a dead cat around Washington, DC without hitting someone—a journalist, reformer, professor, or Chairwoman—complaining about the Federal Election Commission’s dysfunction. (One particularly uninformed reporter stated the Commission had come to a “complete halt.”).

The rhetoric about supposed paralysis has heated up of late with Chairwoman Ann Ravel stating the Commission she leads is, despite her best efforts, beyond repair. Henceforth she will take her fight to the people, or at least the sympathetic organs of the New York Times and Washington Post to demonstrate the Commission’s Republican intransigence.

Her umbrage stems mostly from some disagreements on highly controversial topics like political committee status. Republican refusals to investigate four conservative nonprofits including Crossroads GPS has convinced her “there isn’t going to be any real enforcement,” at the Commission. And “the problem” is three Republican commissioners voting as a bloc to ensure important matters are “swept under the rug.”

The disclosure doyenne doesn’t just reserve her invective for the Republican Commissioners, however. She also finds fault in a judiciary too deferential to agency judgments and candidates she insinuates are openly breaking the law with pre-announcement fundraising practices.

A closer look, however, reveals the issues are more complicated and the agency functioning more smoothly than the California Democrat would have readers of east coast establishment media believe.

As pointed out by Commissioner Lee E. Goodman, the Commission reached at least four votes 93% of the time last year, including 86% involving substantive matters. Those numbers may be slightly down from previous years but are remarkable in the current hyperpartisan environment. When the Commission does disagree it is on tough issues that have plagued the agency often since its inception.

As Bob Bauer explains, the problem with political committee status dates back at least to a supposed more cooperative era in the 2003-2004 when the agency couldn’t agree on a definition, forcing reliance on ad hoc judgments. And Jan Baran remembers this being a contentious issue when he worked at the Commission in 1977.

Goodman estimates these disagreements, which have caused Ravel’s apoplexy affect perhaps one percent of total political money. Regardless, she may be right that certain nonprofits should have registered with the Commission. The soundness of the Republican Commissioners’ decision is now in the courts that she places so little faith. But the whole point of judicial review is to ensure Commission decisions are on solid legal standing.

Of course, in other instances the Chairwoman has been less sanguine about following the law as written. In Checks and Balances for Economic Growth (MUR 6729), involving internet regulations, she refused to follow explicit law because “as a policy matter [the law] simply does not make sense.” As Commissioner Goodman contends, internet policy reaches far beyond a relatively small amount of undisclosed political spending.

Chairwoman Ravel has stated there is a crisis of public confidence about enforcement of election law. To the extent she is correct her statements have certainly contributed to it. Nor is this one commission unique in that debatable assertion. Polls show trust in government at all-time lows. One should probably expect such cynicism with a federal government that interferes with Americans’ lives to the tune of 175,000 pages of regulations.

Things may not be as easy for Chairwoman Ravel as they were in the Golden State, where one-party rule greases bureaucratic dominion of public affairs. But her leadership and legacy depend on her ability to overcome perceived strife, find common ground where possible, respect dissenting opinions as legitimate, and allow the court to decide where necessary. The New York Times and Washington Post will get her up and down I-95 but little place else.

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