Obama budget no windfall for beleaguered FEC

President's proposal provides agency with less money than it asked for

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President Barack Obama's new budget proposal is no windfall for the nation's elections watchdog.

The Federal Election Commission, throttled of late by Chinese hackers and staffing shortages, would receive $67.5 million during fiscal year 2015, according to Obama's plan.

That's $500,000 less than the FEC formally requested. It's also millions of dollars less than the agency needs to fill numerous job vacancies and return to last decade's staffing levels, and to clear an estimated 2.1 million-page backlog of unprocessed campaign filings.

The White House's budget proposal pretends to fill the shortfall between the FEC's request and the budget proposal with $430,000 in savings from members of the U.S. Senate electronically filing their campaign finance reports. The Senate, however, shows little sign that it intends to ditch paper for pixels anytime soon.

Even with its requested $68 million — an 3.3 percent increase over the $65.8 million it's receiving in the current fiscal year — the FEC "anticipates significant budgetary challenges" in the months ahead.

"[D]ue to recent funding restrictions, the Commission may now make only the most critical of hires," the FEC wrote the White House's Office of Management and Budget in September, noting it's slashed its staff by 8 percent this decade and filled just six of 21 vacant positions. "These sustained reductions significantly impair the agency's efforts to manage its human capital and ensure that it can hire and retain top performers who deliver the FEC's mission efficiently and effectively."

Among the FEC's most pressing challenges is securing its computer networks. In October, hackers successfully infiltrated its systems and crashed its databases, the Center for Public Integrity reported.

An independent audit declared the FEC at "high risk" of additional attacks, and leaders of two congressional committees say they're investigating its security situation.

The agency is responsible for monitoring and making public the election activities of more than 10,000 political committees and other election season actors this year.  The 2014 midterms are all but assured to be the nation's most expensive ever, meaning the crush of paperwork FEC staffers must process will be greater than ever for a comparable election cycle.

Obama's budget proposal is just the first step in the protracted process of funding the federal government. Congress could yet increase — or decrease — the FEC's allotment for fiscal year 2015 before Obama signs off on a final budget deal.

Earlier this year, Lee Goodman, the FEC's newly installed chairman and a Republican appointee, said the agency's current funding allows it to "address its most pressing priorities." But he stopped short of saying it would allow the FEC to address longer-term challenges.

The president's fiscal 2015 budget proposal also calls for cuts to the budget of the increasingly idled Election Assistance Commission.

This commission, which is supposed to help ensure the integrity of federal elections and voting systems, is slated to receive $10 million next fiscal year. That's down from the more than $11 million this year and the nearly $18 million it got during Obama's first term.

Some Republicans want to disband the Election Assistance Commission altogether.