Our post–Citizens United campaign finance system isn’t perfect—one might say, horrifically corrupted—but it would work a lot better if regulatory agencies enforced existing rules. The Federal Elections Commission, for example, has not issued a single rule related to Super PACs, and is refusing to take action on a wide variety of apparent infractions, like coordination between campaigns and the outside money groups. As Senator Sheldon Whitehouse told Talking Points Memo this morning, “Some of the referees have taken themselves off the field on this and that’s allowing the special interests to rule-break with relative impunity.”
The FEC remains inert in large part because it’s evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, and they can’t agree on anything. President Obama should have been able to make several appointments by now, thus breaking the deadlock, Senate gridlock has thwarted any attempt to do so—and actually, the only attempt the White House made to fill an FEC seat was blocked by Senators Russ Feingold and John McCain because they felt the pick supported only the status quo.*
We noted earlier this year that good-government groups have been pushing the White House to force new commissioners onto the FEC, either through recess appointments or by aggressively trying to move the Senate. The groups launched a petition on the White House website, which reached the necessary 25,000 signatures that demand an administration response.
That response came yesterday, and it wasn’t very encouraging. It basically just said, “we’ll tell you when we tell you”:
“While the Administration doesn’t comment publicly about the President’s personnel decisions before he makes them, the Obama Administration is committed to nominating highly qualified individuals to lead the FEC,” Special assistant to the president for justice and regulatory policy Tonya Robinson said. “The agency, and the system of open and fair elections that the FEC is charged with protecting, deserve no less.”
The response then went on to blame Congress for not enacting stronger campaign finance laws, which it appears unable to do. (That’s what Whitehouse was lamenting to TPM this morning). That’s certainly fair, but that doesn’t excuse the White House from taking action.
"There are so many problems with our current campaign finance system that the least President Obama could do is make sure the agency overseeing it is in working condition," said Adam Smith of Public Campaign. "Appointing new commissioners to the FEC is something he could easily do right now."
Recall that when the Obama campaign announced it would be embracing the use of a Super PAC, it claimed to be doing so reluctantly and that it would simultaneously push for a better campaign finance system. FEC reform would have been a good way to prove it was serious.
NOTE: An earlier version of this story said Republicans in the Senate blocked Obama’s nominee, not McCain and Feingold. Thanks to Sean Parnell for the correction.