Federal elections panel too swamped to check campaign finance abuses



The Federal Election Commission is mired in an investigation backlog and will be swamped by thousands of cases, giving it little chance for enforcement or for regulating campaign spending abuses, according to an analysis of FEC records by the Center for Public Integrity.

Analysis of FEC records for previous presidential elections, combined with interviews and an evaluation of the Campaign 2000 election cycle, shows that the FEC will be stymied and unable to track all abuses in a timely fashion in what will be the most expensive political campaign in U.S. history.

“The Federal Election Commission simply cannot handle all the enforcement cases placed in its lap.” – FEC Chairman Scott E. Thomas

The analysis is part of the release of new Center online coverage of the 2000 elections. (The nonprofit, nonpartisan Center’s website is at www.publicintegrity.org) The Center’s presidential coverage includes profiles, campaign and personal finance databases and campaign investigation information.


One-quarter acted upon

Center analysis of FEC records found that many of the presidential candidates had been examined for campaign- finance abuses, but that little to no action had been taken against them — in fact, only one-quarter of those cases were acted upon by the agency.

Almost all of the current crop of presidential candidates were the subject of Matters Under Review — or MURs – cases deemed worthy of further investigation by the FEC. Al Gore, running as Bill Clinton’s vice presidential candidate in 1992 and 1996, was named in 17 MURs. Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan has been investigated at least five times in his campaigns for the White House. Former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley and Arizona Senator John McCain have been investigated only twice in their years of federal campaigns. 

The Center’s analysis of the investigations into the current presidential candidates showed the most common violations investigated were receiving contributions from illegal sources, exceeding contribution limits and coordinating campaign efforts with third parties.

Congress has not passed any campaign finance legislation, that would clarify and revise murky portions of campaign finance law, so citizens can expect to see more abuses and more investigations on these counts. Both the Senate’s McCain-Feingold bill and the House’s Shays-Meehan legislation would have accomplished those revisions.

According to Sharon Snyder of the FEC Press Office, the abuses investigated after the 1996 campaign overwhelmed the FEC.

“The large number of respondents and the intricacies of the cases has compounded the problem. Add to that the fact that we don’t have a large staff,” she said.

Federal election law permits complaints to the FEC by individuals, government agencies, nonprofit organizations and rival campaigns. However, a first-line FEC inquiry determines whether a complaint is worthy of further investigation.

Even after a complaint becomes a MUR, FEC lawyers can prioritize and dismiss cases without public scrutiny. The Federal Election Commission Act of 1971 contains a confidentiality provision that precludes the FEC and the complainant from revealing information about the investigation until it is resolved. That confidentiality policy means that no information is made public until the matter has been resolved, so there is no way to determine how many investigations the FEC is currently conducting based on possible abuses made this election cycle.

Logjam nothing new

The FEC logjam is nothing new. Testifying before Congress on campaign violations during the 1996 campaign, Then-FEC Vice Chairman Scott E. Thomas, now chairman, painted a bleak picture. “Part of the problem seems to be a growing awareness that the Federal Election Commission simply cannot handle all the enforcement cases placed in its lap,” he said. The real problem with the FEC review of campaign abuse, says Bruce Bordner, a doctoral candidate at the Woodrow Wilson Department of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia, is political gridlock.

Bordner, whose thesis involves a review of the MUR system, has interviewed current and former FEC commissioners. Federal election law created seats for six commissioners, three Democrats and three Republicans, a recipe for deadlock when it comes to greater issues and candidates, Bordner has found.

“It is in the large cases that you see the partisan issues and you reach political gridlock that results in ‘no action’ in cases,” Bordner said. Such gridlock was evident in some of the more high-profile issues raised in investigating the presidential candidates. Nearly one-half of all MURs resulted in no action taken by the FEC.

Backroom trading

These numbers reflect the sense of back-room trading by the commissioners to neutralize charges leveled against the parties to which they belong. In 1996, for example, both the Clinton-Gore and Dole-Kemp campaigns faced charges that they exceeded spending limits and used public funds to pay off campaign debts. With split decisions on the charges, no action was taken on any of the spending cases and no one repaid the debts.

Care about freedom of the press? Support independent investigative journalism.

Donate now
Donate now