FEC votes to relax campaign finance rules

A divided Federal Election Commission on Thursday moved to formally relax campaign finance restrictions in response to a pair of Supreme Court decisions.

Commissioners voting in the majority cheered the step as a bipartisan breakthrough on the chronically gridlocked panel, which is made up of three Democrats and three Republican members. 

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“It is the obligation of this commission to perform its function and provide as much clarity to the public and the regulated community about what the rules are and how to comply with the law,” FEC Vice Chairwoman Ann Ravel said in remarks before the vote.

The action comes almost five years after the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which struck down restrictions that previously barred corporations and unions from spending money from their general treasury funds to support or oppose candidates.

Donors altered their spending years ago in accordance with the ruling, leading to a significant uptick in political spending in the United States. However, the commission had failed to agree on language on conforming rules, leading to outdated regulations and confusion about the law.

Conservatives on the panel said Thursday's action is a significant step.

“It’s a rare time in Washington for government agencies to remove regulations from the books," said Republican Commissioner Caroline Hunter.

Ravel joined Hunter and the other Republican commissioners in supporting the measure, over the objections of Democratic Commissioners Ellen Weintraub and Steven Walther.

Weintraub and Walther blasted the new rules for not including additional disclosure requirements for independent expenditures on federal political races, arguing that a majority of justices on the Supreme Court called for transparency.

“They are not getting what they envisioned: a system where there would be a lot of freedom for people to buy as many ads as they want to but everybody would know who was behind those ads,” Weintraub said.” And that is not, unfortunately, the system that we have here today.

Weintraub lamented $100 million worth of “dark money” that has flowed into campaigns so far this election cycle, a number she said is likely to get much higher, potentially eclipsing $700 million by Election Day.

The commission, however was unanimous in its approval of a second set of regulations in the form of an interim final rule responding to this spring’s Supreme Court ruling in a case known as McCutcheon v. FEC.

The ruling eliminated decades-old aggregate contribution limits for individual donors in a single election cycle. Donors are still limited in how much they can give to a single candidate.

In agreeing to support the entire package, Ravel demanded inclusion of a third regulatory action to solicit 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 90-day public comment period on the new McCutcheon rule 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.

A public hearing is to be scheduled for February to gather additional input on the regulations. A notice announcing the request for feedmack, along with the new Citizens United and McCutcheon rules, will take effect as soon as they are published in the Federal Register.

Even with discussion of further restrictions, Lee Goodman, the commission’s Republican chairman, celebrated the regulations as a victory for the First Amendment.

“The effect of these regulations will be to encourage more speakers to join the public debate,” Goodman said. “More speakers from more view points is a good thing for our democracy.”