Is the Federal Election Commission a dysfunctional agency deaf to voters fed up with loophole-riddled campaign finance rules? Or is it a newly revived organization making unprecedented moves to invite a wide-ranging public debate over its regulations? The answer may be both. In a fit of productivity on Oct. 9, the FEC managed to outrage its critics, thrill political party leaders, send election lawyers scrambling and break out once again into public bickering. It was an abrupt departure from the months and even years of partisan deadlock that have rendered the FEC incapable of settling even the most routine enforcement disputes. Advocates of political money restrictions have long decried the FEC’s paralysis, but they are even more irate now that the agency has finally sprung into action. Most controversial was the FEC’s move to essentially double the maximum that donors may contribute to the Republican and Democratic National Committees. The Campaign Legal Center’s Larry Noble called it a “disgraceful and activist decision” at odds with federal law.
Donations to the parties are capped at $32,400 a year. But the FEC freed the RNC and the DNC to raise yet another $32,400 a year each from donors who have already given the maximum, in order to help pay for their national party conventions. The conventions had been publicly financed since the 1970s, but Congress nixed public funding for the political party confabs earlier this year.
The agency also issued new regulations to spell out the expanded freedoms that independent campaign spenders enjoy under Citizens United v. FEC, nearly five years after the Supreme Court handed down that landmark ruling. Additionally, the commission cleared interim rules to implement the high court’s April McCutcheon v. FEC ruling, which lifted aggregate campaign contribution limits. Breaking the log jam was FEC Democrat and Vice Chairwoman Ann Ravel, who joined the commission’s three Republicans to cast the decisive fourth vote.
The moves sparked a backlash both within and outside the agency. In a statement, Democratic commissioner Ellen Weintraub faulted the Citizens United regulations for responding to the ruling “only in the narrowest possible sense,” and ignoring key disclosure questions: “Most inexplicably, despite the Supreme Court’s strong endorsement of disclosure, half the commission has blocked consideration of any proposals that would shine new light on dark money.”