Not content to be merely ineffectual while they’re in office, the three Republicans on the Federal Election Commission are now trying to inhibit the agency from enforcing campaign finance laws after they leave. Ordinarily, they wouldn’t have the power to impose their ideological agenda, but a vacancy on the Democratic side of the panel gives them a temporary majority. Using it to push through the changes they’ve proposed would be a cynical move giving candidates and special interests even more freedom to thumb their noses at campaign finance law.
The 1974 statute that created the FEC takes pains to keep the commission from becoming partisan, mandating that the president appoint three commissioners from each party and requiring the support of at least four commissioners to launch an investigation, sue a suspected lawbreaker or issue an advisory opinion. The four-vote requirement doesn’t apply, however, to amending the commission’s enforcement manual, which outlines how the agency launches investigations and carries out other duties. With one of the Democratic seats vacant, the three GOP commissioners are pushing for changes in the manual that would hamstring the agency’s staff and shift much of the fact-finding burden onto the people who bring complaints.
The Republican commissioners — all of whom are serving past the expiration of their terms — insist that they’re just trying to prevent unaccountable bureaucrats from conducting investigations without the approval of the commission, as required by law. But the restrictions they would impose, such as barring the staff from consulting the Justice Department or even publicly available records when reviewing complaints, would make it hard for the staff to persuade the commission to formally investigate any suspected improprieties.
These commissioners have repeatedly blocked investigations that the staff recommended. The changes they’re proposing now, however, would withhold information from the Justice Department as well as hindering the FEC. In a recent letter to the agency, three leading election watchdogs said that a vote for the changes is a vote “to sabotage the enforcement of the nation’s campaign finance laws.”
The commission has repeatedly postponed consideration of the proposed changes, and it should continue to do so at least until the panel is back to full strength. Better yet, with all five of the current members overdue for replacement, the Republicans should simply drop the proposal and let the next commission decide what, if anything, to change.