The free charter flight for Mitt Romney campaign volunteers seemed like an open-and-shut case for the six members of the Federal Election Commission. A wealthy friend of Romney spent $150,000 to fly as many as 200 campaign volunteers from Utah to a fund-raising phone-a-thon in Boston. The three Democrats on the FEC agreed with the agency’s staff that the charter appeared to violate rules limiting such “in-kind’’ gifts to $2,600 per election. But the three Republican commissioners disagreed, saying Romney’s friend merely acted “in behalf of’’ Romney’s 2008 campaign — not the illegal “on behalf of” — and thus the flight was allowed. With that twist of legal semantics, the case died — effectively dismissed. The 3-3 deadlock was part of a pattern of paralysis that has over the past five years gripped the commission, the nation’s principal referee for federal elections. The FEC has often been the subject of criticism since its founding four decades ago. But the impression of weakness has escalated dramatically, as Republicans named to the panel in 2008, united in the belief that the commission had been guilty of regulatory overreach, have moved to soften enforcement, block new rules, and limit oversight. In essence, according to critics, the FEC has been rendered toothless, and at the worst possible time, when powerful special interests are freer than they have been in decades to exert financial influence on Washington politicians.
The commission is taking up far fewer enforcement cases — down to 135 in 2012, from 612 in 2007. And those cases it does consider often go nowhere. The frequency of deadlocked votes resulting in dismissed cases — like the case of the Romney friend’s chartered jet — has shot up, to 19 percent, from less than 1 percent, according to figures compiled by critics of its performance.
The commission has also been hobbled by internal discord as it responds to the profound changes wrought by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010, which opened elections to unlimited corporate spending. New disclosure rules designed to help voters see which monied interests are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in campaigns have been blocked. It has stood by as candidates and the new super PACs supporting them, which can accept unlimited amounts from individual contributors and corporations, have established increasingly intertwined connections.
“People say we are dysfunctional right now,” said commission chairwoman Ellen L. Weintraub, the agency’s top official and a Democrat who has argued for stronger enforcement. “We are. Right now we are kind of stuck — we’re kind of just mired.’’
The story of how an agency went from being a model of good-government intentions to a symbol of broken Washington stretches across the nation’s capital, from the Congress that created the FEC and then stymied it, to the White House that failed to nominate new commissioners, to the Supreme Court that gutted campaign finance laws.
Today, the agency is among the nation’s most dysfunctional federal entities, with leaders who rarely speak outside the confines of formal meetings, a staff of investigators who are routinely ignored, and a mandate that is rarely fulfilled.