FEC strikes deal to revise campaign finance regs

The Federal Election Commission has struck an agreement to formally loosen its regulations governing campaign spending in response to a pair of major Supreme rulings, the agency’s leadership announced Thursday.

The action follows the landmark 2010 Citizens United decision, and comes five months after this spring’s ruling in the case known as McCutcheon v. FEC.

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“We’ve crafted an agreement that will allow the commission and the public to finally move forward, four years after Citizens United,” FEC Vice Chairwoman Ann Ravel said Thursday during remarks at a conference of the Practising Law Institute.

The deal follows months of negotiations between Republicans and Democrats on the six-member FEC, which had been deadlocked on the matter. Ultimately, at least four of the commissioners agreed to support a package of three rule-making measures designed to conform with the high court’s decisions.

The commission plans to formally approve the new rules during a meeting set for Oct. 9.

“I’m going to make this a priority to proceed on this before Election Day, 2014,” FEC Chairman Lee Goodman said. “We exist for Election Day.”

The final language of the rules, however, is not expected to be released until roughly a week before the meeting, making it unlikely that the regulations would have any significant effect on the November midterms.

Despite the FEC’s delay in reconciling its regulations with Citizen United, donors altered their spending years ago in accordance with the ruling.

The contentious decision struck down restrictions that previously barred corporations and unions from spending money from their general treasury funds to support or oppose candidates.

Since 2010, money has flowed to super-PACs and nonprofit groups that operate outside of the party system. Unlimited donations can be made to both types of groups and, in the case of the nonprofit world, without disclosure to the public on who’s giving.

A final rule developed under the FEC’s agreement would further clarify the parameters of the ruling, and codify them into law. The rules would clear up uncertainty that has existed in the aftermath of the ruling, Goodman said.

“Some corporations and labor unions are not always clear on where the changes will ripple through,” he said.

For instance, the regulation will impose clear rules governing the involvement of corporations and organized labor in voter registration drives, he said.

A second rule is meant to reconcile FEC regulations with the court’s decision in McCutcheon to scrap decades-old aggregate contribution limits for individual donors in a single election cycle. Donors still face limits for how much they can give to a single candidate.

The agreement hinged on a third measure, sought by Ravel, soliciting public feedback on various implications of McCutcheon. During arguments in the case, the government, as well as Chief Justice John Roberts, raised concerns about issues related to spending disclosure and transfer of money between candidates.

A formal public comment period could lead to additional restrictions designed to prevent donors from circumventing remaining limits by contributing money to one candidate or party committee that is actually “earmarked” for another.

Even with the prospect of such proposals, Goodman, a self-described libertarian, hailed the agreement as institutionalizing the relaxed campaign finance laws prescribed by the Supreme Court.

“This isn’t about more compliance,” he said. “This is about more freedom.”