FEC 'reform' a smokescreen to weaponize government against free speech
© Getty

Sen. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyEverybody wants Joe Manchin Centrist Democrats pose major problem for progressives Biden and Schumer face battles with left if Democrats win big MORE (D-Ind.) recently introduced the Restoring Integrity to America’s Elections Act. Despite the innocuous name, this is yet another attempt to weaponize government against free speech, free association and political dissent.

The legislation would overhaul the Federal Election Commission (FEC) by lowering the number of FEC commissioners from six to five, supposedly putting an end to “gridlock.” The bill would also “reduce partisanship” by limiting commissioners to serving one term and granting the president power to nominate an FEC “chair” to serve for 10 years. This chair would have the authority to act independently of other commissioners, centralizing power in a single unelected political appointee. 


“Reducing partisanship” is the wrong priority. As a nation, we don’t agree on many issues and we shouldn’t gloss over—or worse, use government to suppress—our disagreements. What’s wrong with different people who lead different lives in different parts of the country having different ideas? Only by airing these debates and disagreements can we reach consensus or compromise—or not, and that’s fine too.

Donnelly’s legislation will openly weaponize the FEC, as it allows one side of the aisle to impose its will when there is legitimate disagreement over complex legal matters. The House version of the bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio) already has more than 10 bipartisan co-sponsors. Perhaps Renacci’s now-floundering campaign for Ohio governor drove him to support such an un-conservative idea to pander to liberal voters. 

For decades, the independent, six-member FEC has remained bipartisan by design, precisely because it has the power to restrict speech about politics—the very heart of our freedoms of speech and association. 

Under the proposed Donnelly-Renacci legislation, Democrats and Republicans would receive two commissioners each, allowing the president to pick the tiebreaker for the next decade. Consolidating partisan control for 10 years at a time does not sound like an improvement.

Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a proponent of all-powerful FEC Chair, exemplifies why it cannot work: These roles are innately partisan. Weintraub ignores Democrat malfeasance while actively lobbying her agency colleagues to probe “the reported attempts of Russia to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” In a sensationalist June memo, Weintraub claimed “Russia’s alleged activities in our 2016 presidential election may represent an unprecedented threat to the very foundations of our American political community.” Yet she disregards such concerns when a Democrat is involved. 

The same commissioner has sought to regulate the internetfine Fox News Channel for including more candidates in a 2015 Republican primary debate, and routinely assails her fellow commissioners

Weintraub complains about partisan dysfunction at the FEC, lamenting divisions “on ideological grounds.” But she fails to understand her perceived “dysfunction”—her colleagues not agreeing with her—is the natural outcome of a checks-and-balances system. There are reasonable differences in interpretation of complex election law and its application to particular facts. Dysfunction proves the FEC is not controlled by a single side of the aisle. Giving Weintraub—or a Republican equivalent—the power to persecute speakers and criminalize speech is just plain crazy. 

Recent attempts to “reform” the FEC only prolong America’s unfortunately long history of misplaced anti-speech activism. Surreptitiously-named liberal groups like the Center for Public Integrity routinely lament “money in politics.” They fearmonger with threatening terminology, from “unlimited cash donors” to “shell game” and “aggressive trafficking.” Left-wing activists like these revert to visceral depictions of Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers as an “us vs. them” ploy—not unlike the failed Occupy Wall Street movement.

Any attack on free speech is ultimately an attack on every American’s constitutional right to free expression, no matter how much money is involved. “Big money” in politics only exposes us to more ideas, while we, the citizens, retain the right to vote in secret at the ballot box. The dissemination of more ideas translates to more information, leaving us with more power to make informed choices about candidates or political issues—our own decision.

Only those who believe Americans are too stupid to make their own decisions think a few more TV ads is a bad idea. The American people should reject the Donnelly-Renacci mistake.

Dan Backer is founding attorney of political.law, a campaign finance and political law firm in Alexandria, Virginia. He has served as counsel to more than 100 campaigns, candidates, PACs, and political organizations.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.