'Common sense' election reforms need support
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The Federal Election Commission is often mocked as a do-nothing agency, hopelessly split by partisan deadlock.  But last week, the agency performed an annual and highly constructive act on a unanimous bipartisan basis -- it made thirteen recommendations to Congress to amend the statute it oversees. 

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While it is common for everyone to ignore these annual recommendations, it is a mistake to do so.  They contain common sense changes that all Republican and Democratic Commissioners agree will help make the statute more sensible, save taxpayers money, and produce a fairer system of financing our federal campaigns.  Here are just a few of their suggestions:

End the requirement that political committees only make disbursements by check. Since the statute was adopted, wiring funds, not to mention credit cards and electronic transfers, have become commonplace.  There is no policy reason to insist on checks only and the statute should be brought up to date.    

Index some of the limits for inflation. The threshold for when you become a political committee ($1,000), when you must file an independent expenditure report ($250), and the exemption for how much you can spend on food, refreshments and invitations when you host a candidate fundraiser at your home ($1,000) were all set in 1979 and have remained stuck there ever since.  The consequence is the agency is forced to regulate more small dollar political activity than Congress originally intended.  Indexing will remove small dollar spenders from the FEC’s regulatory or enforcement focus. 

Remove statute on public financing of national party conventions. Congress repealed public financing of the national party conventions in 2014 and it is time to also remove it from statute. When Congress ended taxpayer support for the national party conventions and used the funds for medical research instead, it failed to repeal the statutory provisions for the old program. It makes no sense for the statute to continue to describe a program that no longer exists.  Congress should eliminate these confusing and extinct rules. 

Make fines for late reports permanent. For 16 years, the FEC has had an experimental program of automatic administrative fines for late filed reports.  It is the equivalent of a “speed camera” for the FEC.  Since its inception, the number of late reports has been cut in half and is now below 10%.  The program saves taxpayers money, but must periodically be renewed by Congress.  Why not declare the experiment over and make it permanent? 

Prohibit candidates from using PAC funds for personal use. The law forbids candidates and their staff from using campaign funds for personal expenses, such as gym memberships, family vacations and their children’s tuition. But no similar bar exists on the misuse of party or PAC funds, and the FEC says the abuses are growing.  A statutory change is needed to fix this. 

The FEC has eight more suggestions and the reasons for each. In this period where everyone in Washington wonders if there is anything that Republicans and Democrats can agree on, the FEC has provided some simple, commonsense suggestions.  We should listen to them.  

 

Robert D. Lenhard is a senior attorney in the Election and Political Law Practice Group of Covington & Burling LLP.


 

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