Congressional investigations of FEC stalled

Committees that promised to probe agency's security, staffing woes are slow to act

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Leaders on two U.S. House committees acknowledge that parallel investigations into computer security and staffing breakdowns at the Federal Election Commission aren't living up to their initial billings.

Such apparent lack of action comes at a critical time for the FEC, which this month warned Congress of threats to its computer networks that have "increased dramatically," and of staff vacancies across the agency that "have begun to affect negatively the FEC’s ability to provide public services."

The Center for Public Integrity detailed the severity of both problems, which include the successful infiltration of FEC computer systems by Chinese hackers, in an investigative report last year.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Government Operations Subcommittee that oversees federal IT matters, in January promised to "conduct a full and thorough review of the vulnerabilities of FEC systems which should raise concerns for all federal elected officials."

That hasn't yet occurred.

“We have been diverted with several pending crisis [sic] but are having staff review the FEC data breach," Mica wrote in an email. "We will keep you posted.”

Mica did not elaborate on what the pending crises are. Brian D. Waldrip, Mica's legislative director, said he didn't have additional information.

Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., the ranking member on the Committee on House Administration, which has FEC oversight powers, in January called on his committee to conduct a hearing on the FEC that he considered "long overdue."

He's still waiting.

"I certainly believe that we should have held multiple hearings on the FEC by now," Brady said in an email. "Between new commissioners, a security breach and ongoing gridlock, the committee should be playing a more active role in the oversight of the agency."

Brady's office had no comment on whether the committee's chairman, Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., is refusing to schedule a hearing, as is her prerogative.

So: Is Miller the cause of the delay?

"Our committee and staff are in constant contact with the FEC, and Chairman Miller had met with [former FEC Chairman] Ellen Weintraub in her office last year discussing various FEC issues," Miller spokeswoman Erin Sayago said in a statement. "A hearing always remains a possibility."

Meanwhile, the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, which among upper chamber committees has FEC oversight responsibilities, is also showing little outward appetite for addressing the agency's problems.

The committee's chairman, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has declined through staff several requests for comment since January.

Committee member Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, shrugged when asked recently if the committee plans to conduct an oversight hearing on the FEC or otherwise publicly address the agency.

"You'll have to ask the chairman," King said.

Alec Palmer, who doubles as the FEC's staff director and information technology director, did visit Capitol Hill in January to speak with congressional staffers about his agency's troubles.

But current FEC Chairman Lee Goodman, a Republican, confirmed Monday that he has not personally met with congressional leaders about the FEC's problems since taking the agency's gavel in January. Vice Chairman Ann Ravel, a Democrat, also said congressional leaders have yet to meet with her.

Appointed in September, both Goodman and Ravel officially joined the FEC in late October, days after Chinese hackers breached the agency's computer network and IT defenses.

They frequently disagree on philosophical and legal issues before the FEC, such as political spending disclosure. That's nothing new for the bipartisan agency, which last year logged record-level gridlock on high-profile issues before the six-member commission.

Goodman and Ravel have, however, united around the issue of bolstering their agency's staffing and security resources, and they have restored a measure of civility to commission proceedings after a notoriously turbulent 2013.

Not that the White House is particularly impressed. It, like Schumer's committee, has largely been silent on the FEC's woes.

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama's fiscal year 2015 federal government budget proposal recommended $67.5 million for the FEC — $500,000 less than the FEC had requested in September.

The White House's proposed allotment was a slight increase compared to the FEC's current budget of $65.8 million, which is itself below the agency's funding level from four years ago.

Yet the fiscal year 2015 budget proposal was short of the millions of new dollars that'd be required to quickly — and all at once — fill dozens of FEC staff positions either cut or left vacant in recent years, erase a campaign finance report processing backlog 2 million pages thick and address numerous computer and IT needs.

On Friday, the FEC submitted a budget request to Congress that mirrored the White House's proposed funding level, with Ravel, the vice chairman, noting that the agency didn't want to "overreach" in its recommendation. The FEC's request asked for about $1.5 million in funds dedicated to enhancing the agency's computer and IT systems.

"The FEC’s budget reflects the priorities it has identified," Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman Emily Cain said when asked whether the White House believes the FEC, as it contends, remains at risk to computer hackers and is understaffed in various departments.

Letting the FEC languish, or attempt to fix its problems by itself without intervention, shouldn't be an option, insisted Brady, the congressman from Pennsylvania.

"The FEC has stated plans to improve their operations and IT security, but we have not had the appropriate opportunity to question the commissioners on their progress in a public forum," he argued. "This is vital to ensuring the efficacy of the agency and must be a priority."

 

 

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