New complaints against 2016 hopefuls may be resolved this decade — or not

Reform group targets Bush, Santorum, Walker and O'Malley

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The Campaign Legal Center today filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission against four potential presidential candidates — Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum, Scott Walker and Martin O'Malley — accusing them of full-on acting the part without officially registering campaign committees.

Good luck with that: If the nonpartisan campaign reform group is fortunate, FEC commissioners will rule on these cases sometime before the 2020 presidential election.

Indeed, the FEC, which exists largely to regulate and enforce campaign finance laws, sometimes takes longer to rule on complaints than it took the United States to win World War II.

Its fellow governmental agency NASA sent its Cassini-Huygens space probe flying past the planet Jupiter (after first swinging it around Venus) in shorter order than the FEC has resolved matters pending against some presidential candidates.

As the Center for Public Integrity previously reported, a 2003 complaint by the American Conservative Union against a supporter of former Democratic Sen. John Edwards’ 2004 presidential committee was ultimately resolved — in 2012.

More recently, Republican Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential committee won dismissal of a case against it in mid-2013.

A complaint filed in 2011 by the Campaign Legal Center and fellow reform group Democracy 21 against a limited liability company supporting Republican Mitt Romney's White House dreams? Still pending.

So, too, is a 2011 complaint by watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington against Republican Herman Cain's presidential campaign — as is a separate complaint from the same year against Republican Newt Gingirch's presidential campaign.

Why is this so?

FEC commissioners aren't compelled by law to move quickly, or much at all, when investigating accusations of campaign law violations. If they want to delay or otherwise extend a case, even beyond the boundaries of an election cycle in which a complaint is made, there's little stopping them.

Even if FEC commissioners did move quickly, they often deadlock on high-profile matters, particularly if the person or committee under scrutiny is a staunch partisan.

Meanwhile, the FEC has also gone without a general counsel, who leads its legal department, for about 21 months.

"To say the FEC's process is broken is an understatement," said Paul S. Ryan, senior attorney at the Campaign Legal Center.

In interviews this year, FEC commissioners — both Democratic and Republican appointees — acknowledge that ideological differences have prevented them from taking speedy action on some matters before them.

Democratic Chairwoman Ann Ravel has expressed frustration with her Republican colleagues for what she considers a largely laissez-faire approach to enforcing campaign laws in an age when certain political organizations may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for the election or defeat of politicians.

Republican Commissioner Lee Goodman has advocated against “unnecessary political regulation" at the FEC, a philosophy largely mirrored by his GOP colleagues Caroline Hunter and Matt Petersen.

Both sides have nevertheless resolved to work together, in the words of Goodman, "when possible," but in recent months, cooperation has not been the norm.

Also worth noting: Four of the six FEC commissioners — two Republicans, one Democrat and one independent aligned with Democrats — continue to occupy their posts despite their six-year terms having long ago expired.

President Barack Obama has not floated nominees to replace them — something he could do this afternoon, should he choose to.

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