The 2020 election is expected to bring unprecedented campaign spending to Maine, and with it an onslaught of political advertising. It sure would be nice to have a fully functioning Federal Elections Commission to give voters confidence that campaigns, political parties and outside groups are following the rules as that happens.
Unfortunately, the country’s elections watchdog agency still doesn’t have enough commissioners to carry out critical functions like voting on enforcement decisions, passing new rules, or providing advisory opinions. The FEC can still process and publicize campaign finance information, but with only three current commissioners following a resignation earlier this year, the agency’s ability to actively enforce campaign finance law is severely undermined.
While the FEC has never been a model of enforcement productivity and effectiveness, it nonetheless performs a critical democratic function by bringing some order and transparency to what often feels like a wild west of campaign spending. It would be a serious mistake for the U.S. Senate and White House to allow this agency to continue to be largely sidelined during a presidential election year.
All three of the current FEC commissioners are serving expired terms. The White House, which nominates commissioners, and the Senate, which confirms them, haven’t been able to reach an agreement on getting the agency back to full strength. One suggested avenue forward has been to nominate and confirm a block of six new commissioners. A similar approach broke an FEC nomination logjam in 2008, and we hope cooler heads will prevail again.
Obviously there are a few other matters necessarily occupying time and energy in Washington right now, but the lack of a quorum at the FEC cannot get lost in the shuffle.
Thankfully, a bipartisan group of campaign finance lawyers are trying to make sure lawmakers and the White House don’t lose sight of this issue. According to the Washington Post, these 31 lawyers, despite representing clients with vast political differences, are unified in their belief that America needs a fully functioning FEC.
“In representing those clients, we often find ourselves in adversarial positions in the legal arena,” they wrote. “Yet we are united in our commitment to the rule of law and the need for the agency tasked with regulating federal campaign finance laws to fully function and carry out the mission assigned to it by Congress.”
Campaign finance reform is an unfortunately partisan issue, but regardless of the often competing visions from Democrats and Republicans of how money should and shouldn’t factor into political activity, the federal government needs a referee to make sure the political players follow the rules we do have in place. Ensuring that the legal entity tasked with campaign finance enforcement and education has a basic ability to function should be a no brainer regardless of party, especially leading up to a presidential election.
“Our hope is that it will help to show a united front, that this is not a partisan issue,” Cleta Mitchell, a longtime Republican campaign lawyer and one of the leaders of the letter, told the Washington Post. “Can we not just agree to hold the rule of law?”
FEC Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub has emphasized that the agency is still open for business and conducting some of its functions, but acknowledged the problematic state of affairs in her 2019 end of the year report — including a backlog of 101 pending enforcement matters that will only grow while the agency remains hobbled.
“The nation is bitterly split along partisan lines and our democracy remains under sustained attack from foreign adversaries. And the agency charged with administering and enforcing the federal campaign laws that will govern the 2020 election remains without the four Commissioners it needs to make most of its major decisions,” Weintraub wrote. “It is, to be charitable, less than ideal.”
We aren’t feeling quite so charitable. From our perspective, the situation is irresponsible, and it’s unacceptable. The Senate and the White House need to address it, and soon.
“It’s starting. It’s now,” Mitchell said about the 2020 election process. “We need a fully functioning Federal Election Commission. It’s really inexcusable for people to not realize that it’s time to do this.”
As journalists in a state that is all but guaranteed to be mired in political ads and accusations for the next nine months, we could not agree more.