Watchdog FEC sidelined as elections roll
The Federal Election Commission has vacancies in four of six seats and it hasn't acted on a new ethics law.
A record-spending primary season is in full swing, but America's elections watchdog is fresh out of bark and bite.Skip to next paragraph
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Four of the six seats on the Federal Election Commission are vacant, with nominations caught up in partisan gridlock in the US Senate. The FEC can still disclose data on elections, but without a quorum, it can't issue regulations and binding opinions or file lawsuits.
"Everyone is running around Iowa and New Hampshire, and no one noticed that the FEC closed for business last week," says Anthony Corrado, a campaign-finance expert at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
In an election where spending is already on track to exceed $5 billion, even small ambiguities in the law can shift vast sums of money – and prospects for candidates.
Moreover, without FEC action, a new federal ethics law requiring the disclosure of so-called "bundled" contributions, may not take effect in time to influence the 2008 election cycle.
While federal law limits individuals to $2,300 in contributions to a specific campaign, it's not illegal for individuals to persuade friends and associates to also contribute and then take credit for the total. This bundle of contributions can enhance the political access of an individual donor.
But the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, which President Bush signed into law on Sept. 14, imposes new disclosure requirements on bundlers who are also registered lobbyists. Candidates and party committees now must disclose a bundler's name, address, employer, and the total contribution he or she is taking credit for. This reporting requirement takes effect 90 days after the FEC completes final regulations.
While the FEC has completed work on other rules in the new lobby and ethics law, such as restrictions on travel on private jets, it hasn't competed regulations on the requirements for bundlers.
To many public-interest groups, bundling disclosure is the cutting edge of the new lobby and ethics law – and the FEC's current limbo means that bundling disclosure requirements will not be complete in time for the 2008 election cycle.
"It's absurd and irresponsible for our democracy to have a campaign-finance enforcement agency shut down right as we're going into the heart of the 2008 presidential nomination process," says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a public-interest group. "The growing problems associated with influence-seeking bundlers raising money for the 2008 presidential candidates provide powerful evidence that the privately funded, unlimited spending 2008 presidential primary race has returned American politics to the days of the Wild West."
Until recently, FEC enforcement efforts focused mainly on abuses during the 2004 electoral cycle, especially the activities of groups that poured millions of dollars into federal campaigns and accepted contributions above the limits in federal law.