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.
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Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth raised more than $25 million in the 2004 election cycle to criticize the military record of Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee. In 2006, they settled with the FEC for civil penalties of $299,500. The League of Conservation Voters, which was critical of President Bush, raised $6.7 million in the 2004 election cycle, and paid penalties of $180,000. MoveOn.org's Voter Fund, which spent $14.6 million on television advertisements in battleground states shortly before the 2004 presidential election, agreed to pay a civil penalty of $150,000, according to the FEC.Skip to next paragraph
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FEC officials, citing a record $5.5 million in fines last year, say such penalties are setting a new tone for candidates and groups raising funds for Campaign 2008.
But some public-interest groups say even a fully functioning FEC was less than effective in enforcing the laws on the books.
"All of us would rather have a functioning FEC, but even their enforcement actions are so delayed and the amounts so small, given the magnitude of the money involved, it's hard to get too exercised," says Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center.
To political campaigners, "the FEC is seen as a cost of doing business," she adds.
Meanwhile, the Senate – now meeting in pro forma sessions to avoid presidential recess appointments – remains deadlocked over four pending FEC nominations, two proposed by Democrats and two by Republicans. All four have been serving as FEC commissioners under previous recess appointments. Senate Democrats have criticized one of the GOP nominees, Hans von Spakovsky, for his previous work in the Justice Department.
"If we're going to have a vote, it should be balanced and bipartisan," says Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senator McConnell. "Generally, the reason we move [FEC nominations] in groups is so that the party in the majority doesn't have a veto over the others."
Ironically, the four nominees have been serving on a commission that has been unusually free of partisan rancor.
"The conventional wisdom about this agency – that it is divided on partisan lines, three Democrats and three Republicans, and that we deadlock all the time – is completely untrue," says commissioner Ellen Weintraub, who was nominated by Democrats.
"In fact, we almost never deadlock. There are thousands of votes throughout the year, and we deadlock on about 1 percent of them. We have taken some tough votes and agreed on some pretty stiff penalties for important political players out there," she adds.