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Lawmakers demand FEC documents, threaten subpoena

House lawmakers on Thursday demanded that the Federal Election Commission (FEC) hand over a trove of internal documents and threatened to issue a subpoena if the agency refuses.

Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), chairman of the subcommittee on elections, gave the FEC 10 days to turn over the documents, under threat of congressional subpoena.

{mosads}Holding the first oversight hearing for the agency since 2004, lawmakers on the House Administration Committee said more transparency is needed at the FEC. 

Watchdog groups have long faulted the agency for failing to issue key enforcement rulings and say disclosure rules aren’t keeping pace with record-breaking campaign spending.

“We believe this hearing is long overdue,” Harper said. “We had a great deal of catching up to do.” 

Among the documents requested from the FEC is the agency enforcement manual, as well as records detailing how the FEC calculates penalties for election law violations.

Commission officials conceded that some of the FEC’s documents could be made more public and transparent.

But FEC Commissioner Donald McGahn II said there is no “magic chart” or sentencing guideline used when doling out penalties. He said the agency depends on a “number of factors” when deciding how to punish election law violations.

“It’s not as easy as just handing you a book,” McGahn told the committee.

Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) pressed McGahn on the penalty guidelines, asking why the agency is so secretive about them.

“I don’t have a good answer as to why this stuff is secret,” McGahn said, adding that the FEC can sometimes be “insular.”

McGahn added that making such a manual public could result in reverse engineering of penalties in which campaigns conduct cost-benefit analysis and choose to accept the penalty rather than complying with FEC regulations. 

“None of you are that important that you can’t disclose what you’re doing as a public business,” Rokita countered.

Good-government groups have long argued that aggressive oversight of the FEC is sorely needed.

At a press conference held before the committee’s hearing Thursday, groups took the FEC and President Obama to task for what they argue is the commission’s ineffectiveness in the face of election law violations.

Eight ethics watchdogs, including Democracy 21, Public Citizen and U.S. PIRG, sent Obama a letter Thursday urging the president to nominate new commissioners to the FEC. Five of the six sitting commissioners’ terms have expired.

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, said the commission’s inability to function rests on the president’s shoulders. 

“The Federal Election Commission is itself a national campaign finance scandal,” Wertheimer said. “For almost three years, President Obama has failed to meet his public commitment.”

The watchdogs said the commission is continually deadlocked on key enforcement decisions. They pointed to statistics showing that tied decisions by the FEC are on the rise while its enforcement actions have dropped over the years. 

“If we have an agency that doesn’t enforce the law, that essentially guts the law,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. “The FEC is clearly broken.” 

Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas), the elections subcommittee’s ranking member, questioned the FEC about whether it could absorb the responsibilities of the Election Assistance Commission, should it be dissolved.

House Administration Committee Republicans have long advocated the dissolution of the EAC, an independent, bipartisan commission formed by the Help America Vote Act in 2002, claiming the commission’s primary purpose of cleaning up elections has already been achieved. 

In June, the House rejected a bill to end the EAC, which Republicans said would save $33 million over five years.

In mid-October, House Republicans again recommended eliminating funding for the EAC as part of proposed cost-saving initiatives to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.

“The Election Assistance Commission has fulfilled its function and is now a perfect example of unnecessary and wasteful spending,” full committee Chairman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) wrote in a letter to the joint committee co-chairmen, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Democrats on the Committee on House Administration have unanimously denounced the Republican recommendation to reduce spending within the legislative branch.

“Such a move would actually increase the cost of elections, shift expenses to already burdened state and local budgets, and diminish the quality and transparency of elections nationwide,” according to an Oct. 14 statement. 

{mossecondads}“This continues a Republican effort to return the EAC’s voting machine certification responsibilities to the Federal Election Commission, the same agency whose failure to properly handle the process led to the nightmare recount in Florida in 2000 and creation of EAC under the Help America Vote Act,” the statement continued.

Gonzalez asked FEC officials whether a shift in duties from the EAC to the FEC would require additional funding.

FEC Chairwoman Cynthia Bauerly assured the committee that the FEC would assume such duties in “the most cost-effective manner,” but could not testify as to specific numbers involved.

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