Lenhard promises to keep up enforcement

As chairman of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), Robert Lenhard is in charge of the agency that oversees the nation’s election laws, discloses campaign finance information and handles public financing. A Democratic pick, the Maryland native joined the agency as a recess appointment in January 2006. Lenhard and three other FEC commissioners still need confirmation by the Senate.

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The Hill conducted the interview before the Supreme Court ruled Monday on FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life. In a 5-4 vote, the high court struck down parts of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act [BCRA] and said that non-profit groups could run “issue ads” 30 days ahead of a primary or 60 days ahead of a general election.

Q: This year, the FEC has announced record fines in enforcing election law. Why the big uptick in penalties?

A: I would point to two things right away. In the first instance, when Congress passed the BCRA in 2002, they raised the penalty level on many of the particular kinds of violations. The second thing is a product of changes at the agency. It has been an effort of both the current commissioners and also those before us to try to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the enforcement side.

Q: How is the FEC preparing to enforce election laws with new nonprofit groups, like 501(c)4s, in the future, like it has recently done with 527s?

A: Our approach has been to look at the statute, and the statute defines a political committee based upon its conduct. So if an organization engages in the kind of conduct that triggers political committee status, we will make sure it is registered.

Q: The 2008 presidential election could be the first election run entirely on private money. Maintaining public financing is a big responsibility for the agency. What could this mean for the FEC?

A:In terms of the operation of the agency, I don’t think that it has a very dramatic effect. There are a number of candidates who will participate in the public financing system. I think the thing that is the most troubling is that the candidates that are perceived as most likely to win seem to be stepping away from the public financing system. The question is really going to turn to Congress as to how they want to adjust the system.

Q: How is the agency able to function, then, without a single confirmed commissioner?

A: We proceed and address the questions that come before us. I think if you look at the record of what has happened over the last 18 months, there has been a lot of success in the three major areas where the agency has functioned. In disclosure, we have loaded up a new search engine for the money raised in the presidential races. We have a whole range of policy statements that we have issued in the last 18 months that provide a lot of clarity and improvements in how the agency runs. Last year was the best year in enforcement in terms of the improvements in speed [with] which we are processing cases.

Q: Many people opposed your recess appointment to the FEC because of your participation in a lawsuit that argued the BCRA was not constitutional. Now, as the agency’s chairman, how do you uphold that law?

A: When my name was first presented, there was some concern, especially from the reform community. I had been one of four lawyers that helped provide legal services to the AFL-CIO in its constitutional challenge to the part of BCRA that prohibited unions from using their treasury funds for advertisements in a period of 30 days and 60 days before the primary and general elections [respectively]. We have been enforcing that part of the statute and I was supportive of this agency going to the Supreme Court defending the constitutionality of that part of the statute in the response to the [Wisconsin] Right to Life case.

Q: What do you think will be the big story for the 2008 presidential election in money and politics?

A: I think the dominant story for the remainder of this year and long into the early part of next year is going to be the amount of money the candidates are raising, in part because that fundraising is a quantifiable proxy of success in convincing people that you should be the next president.

Q: Is the agency’s budget large enough to do its job as the top overseer of the nation’s election laws?

A: My focus right now is trying to ensure that we can really say that we have been as effective as humanly possibly, given the taxpayers’ money we have now. If we get a little money for technology, I think you would see dramatic improvements in that. The best example of that is the disclosure map we put up on the website [two weeks ago]. We did that within our budget.