Woe, to be the Federal Election Commission in the age of the Koch brothers. The agency charged with safeguarding the integrity of American democracy has, in recent years, been hit again and again by other branches of the federal government further flooding the political system with money from a small coterie of ultrawealthy donors. There was the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling in 2010, which made it possible for corporations, unions, and nonprofit groups to spend directly on elections. There was the McCutcheon v. FEC ruling last year, which, while keeping in place caps on how much an individual could give directly to a candidate or political committee, eliminated the aggregate limits on how much he could give combined. And just two months ago, Congress slipped into the big must-pass spending bill a further expansion of the sums a wealthy donor could give to party committees. The FEC hasn’t exactly helped matters, either. In the final years of George W. Bush’s administration, in 2007, it issued a rule that greatly weakened the requirements for nonprofit groups airing political “issue ads” to disclose their donors. More recently, the agency, despite the best efforts of Chairwoman Ann Ravel, a Democrat, has been conspicuously weak in enforcing its remaining rules on donor disclosure, laundered campaign contributions, and improper coordination between outside groups and candidates—the result of a worse-than-ever partisan deadlock between its three Democratic appointees and its three Republican ones, who have repeatedly resisted serious enforcement actions. All in all, the agency is looking about as effective at holding the line as a middle-school hall monitor at a Roman bacchanal.
Yet it is a government agency, which means there’s something it still knows how to do: hold hearings. And on Wednesday, it threw open its doors in downtown Washington for a real doozy, a daylong open-mic session asking the public how it could improve its campaign finance regulations in light of the recent court and congressional actions. There was an almost post-apocalyptic feel to the proceeding: Effectively, the agency was admitting that the village had been all but burned to the ground, and it was looking for any last-ditch tips on how to rebuild.
For context, this is what the scorched landscape of campaign finance regulation now looks like, as compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University: Since Citizens United, there has been almost $2 billion in spending on federal elections by so-called super PACs—501(c)(4) nonprofits and other outside groups that can raise unlimited funds. More than a third of that can be traced to a mere 209 individual donors. (In 2014, the top 100 publicly disclosed donors gave almost as much as all 4.7 million people who gave $200 or less.) Roughly another third of the $2 billion total has come from completely dark sources—501(c)(4)s and other groups who do not need to disclose their donors. And the outside spending was funneled heavily toward the most competitive races—last year, for example, nearly 90 percent of outside spending on Senate races flowed toward the 11 hardest-fought races, where it often exceeded both regular candidate and party spending.