In the wild post–Citizen’s United world of campaign finance, where unlimited, secret cash flows and the Super PAC are increasingly the preferred tools with which to get candidates elected (or defeated), boundaries are constantly tested with no clear answers. To what extent can Super PACs work with campaigns? What stops all outside groups from going beyond “issue ads” to direct advocacy? How can one be sure the money to Super PACs isn’t from illegal sources, like foreign entities?
The referee to these disputes, and many others, should be the Federal Election Commission. But in recent years the agency has been completely moribund—a “broken agency that refuses to fulfill its basic statutory functions.” In fact, while it has given some guidance in this area, the FEC has not issued a single rule specifically related to Super PACs. Ever.
A key problem is that the commissioners, which are now split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, haven’t rotated for years, staying in their positions because no new nominations can get through the Senate. So the commission is in perpetual stalemate, with the Republican members freezing action on virtually every issue of importance.
Some good government groups hoped that recess appointments to the FEC would accompany the recent White House moves to staff the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board. It didn’t happen—and now several of these groups are determined to get an answer.
The White House website allows for petition drives that, if they reach 25,000 signatures, will get an official response. The League of Women Voters, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the Campaign Legal Center have just filed a petition that asks President Obama to pick a fight with Senate Republicans and name new commissioners to the FEC—Obama has only tried to nominate one commissioner so far during his term, and gave up the fight rather quickly.
The groups say the move is a product of years of meetings with the White House that went nowhere. They told ABC News:
“We have a full conversation with them, and they smile sweetly and they express understanding of our point of view. And nothing happens,” said Lloyd Leonard, advocacy director for the League of Women Voters. “This seems to be rope-a-dope from the administration.… They are very consistent at not responding and failing to provide any reasons for their failure to move ahead.”
The White House is probably reluctant to jump in this fight in an election year, because one of the key issues about Super PACs is the legality of presidential candidate–specific PACs, as detailed in this excellent report from Democracy 21. Obama, of course, enjoys the help of Priorities USA, a candidate-specific PAC that is staffed by former White House aides and has even held meetings for the campaign’s national finance committee members—right after they attended official campaign fundraising events.
The White House surely doesn’t want to lose that fundraising avenue—but they may at least have to explain in the open why cleaning up the FEC isn’t a priority.
(Postscript: West Wing aficionados will recall that forcing new commissioners onto the FEC was one of the fights Jed Bartlett was unwilling to have—until he was convinced by his staff to stop being overly moderate and conciliatory to Congress.)