Big issues — and uncertainty
The FEC’s leadership tumult also comes at a pivotal time for the agency itself, which is slated to move its headquarters from downtown Washington, D.C., across the street from the FBI’s headquarters, to a smaller, more modern space near Union Station, the city’s main train station.
Commissioners insist the move, while assuredly disruptive to staff, shouldn’t negatively affect the agency’s most public functions, such as publishing terabytes worth of federal campaign finance data online.
Were the FEC to close its doors in 2018, Hunter and Weintraub agree that an agency shutdown would delay hard-fought progress on several key issues that have actually brought a degree of consensus among commissioners.
That commissioners have found common ground on these matters is notable in and of itself: The FEC’s liberals have long lamented what they consider the agency’s failure to fully honor its post-Watergate promise of combating corruption and graft, at times accusing conservative commissioners of rendering the FEC impotent through inaction.
Conservatives, meanwhile, have waged low-level war against agency overreach, blocking left-leaning colleagues’ attempts to, in their telling, enforce election laws Congress never passed and squelch political speech the Constitution’s First Amendment protects.
Nevertheless, the commission has scored several recent, if modest victories for bipartisanship.
At Walther’s prodding, the panel agreed this month to more transparently account for the dozens of election law enforcement cases, a few of which have lingered for years.
Both Hunter and Weintraub expressed strong desire to reduce this backlog, although Hunter cautioned that the FEC sometimes has good reason to wait to rule on some cases, such as when federal courts are simultaneously grappling with a matter before the FEC. “There’s more than meets the eye with some of these, and it’s important to get the law right,” Hunter said.
At the FEC’s final meeting of 2017 on Thursday, the five commissioners unanimously agreed to ask Congress for a dozen different changes to federal law.
Among the recommendations: Forcing senators to file their campaign finance disclosures electronically — they still do so on paper — and prohibiting political committees from engaging in “potentially fraudulent fundraising and spending” that involves raising money with the promise of supporting candidates, then using almost none of it for that purpose. Congress routinely ignores the FEC’s annual legislative wish list, but Hunter and Weintraub urged that lawmakers give serious consideration to this year’s offering.
Also on the FEC’s agenda next year is tackling agency vacancies. It’s been four-and-a-half years since the agency last had a permanent general counsel to lead a legal department that represents about one-third of its 350-person workforce. The FEC’s inspector general, Lynne McFarland, retired in March without the commission replacing her.
Other senior-level positions that are vacant or filled on an “acting” basis include chief financial officer, accounting director, chief communications officer, deputy staff director for management and administration, associate general counsel for policy and deputy chief information officer.
Hunter said some “acting” staffers may become permanent. In the meantime, she added, she’ll work with Weintraub to look for other ways to make the agency, with an annual budget of just north of $70 million, more efficient — including whether some agency jobs should be changed or eliminated to better suit agency needs.
Goodman is also pressing for the agency to adjust its rules to reduce federal campaign finance reporting burdens on state and local political parties, a subject on which he thinks there may be agreement among commissioners.
Perhaps the most high-profile issue the FEC will tackle in 2018 is what to do about internet-based political communications.
A Russian company with suspected ties to the Russian government sponsored thousands of political issue ads. Given this, Weintraub, in particular, has insisted the FEC address alleged foreign influence in U.S. elections.
At the agency’s last public meeting of 2017, it took a modest step toward this goal, ruling after several hours of minutiae-parsing debate that conservative political activist John Pudner’s Take Back Action Fund political group must disclose who paid for Facebook ads it sponsors. Pudner, an advocate for increased campaign regulations, asked the commission for the ruling, which applied only to his organization and others that engage in political activity “indistinguishable” from that of Pudner’s group.
Hunter and Weintraub have agreed in principle to work with one another on a broader, if still limited, process in 2018 to craft regulations addressing online political ad disclaimers.
It’s a notable, even startling departure from not more than one year ago, when the notion of the FEC regulating any internet communication for any reason prompted death threats against then-Democratic Commissioner Ravel.
But the specter of an agency shutdown and shared goals on hold loomed even at the agency’s final meeting of 2017, as commissioners began taking what should have been a perfunctory vote naming Weintraub vice chairwoman for 2018.
Goodman, one of three Republican commissioners, left the meeting early. Weintraub chose to abstain instead of vote for herself.
The commission, therefore, couldn’t conduct a vote because it didn’t have four commissioners willing or able to cast votes. Goodman, hours later, ultimately cast a ballot for Weintraub, averting an open-ended delay — for now.
Ashley Balcerzak contributed to this report.
This article was co-published by Salon.
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