Congress to require FEC report on foreign money in elections

Congress to require FEC report on foreign money in elections
© Greg Nash

Congress is poised to ask the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to issue a report about illegal foreign political contributions in elections, its enforcement measures, and how it works to combat them.

The provision is in a report accompanying the 2,000-plus page omnibus bill that was released Wednesday evening, and is one of several campaign finance-related measures attached to the legislation.

Rep. Derek KilmerDerek Christian KilmerDems reverse course on White House parks plan Dems urge Trump to reinstate top cyber post Congress to require FEC report on foreign money in elections MORE (D-Wash.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, authored the FEC language, calling it a “good step forward” toward understanding foreign influence in American elections.

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“Up until now, this has been a talking point for too many people and this is a step toward action,” Kilmer told The Hill. “The Federal Election Commission is meant to be the referee to blow the whistle.”

The provision directs the FEC’s chairwoman, Republican Caroline Hunter, to submit a report to the House and Senate appropriations panels “on the Commission's role in enforcing this prohibition, including how it identifies foreign contributions to elections, and what it plans to do in the future to continue these efforts.”

The FEC would have 180 days after Congress passes the omnibus to compile the report and submit it to Capitol Hill.

“Preserving the integrity of elections, and protecting them from undue foreign influence, is an important function of government at all levels,” the language in the budget report reads. “Federal law, for example, prohibits foreign campaign contributions and expenditures.”

Hunter told The Hill on Thursday she looks forward to writing the report "to explain what it is we do to make sure that foreigners aren't contributing to campaigns."

The omnibus spending bill provides $71.25 million for the FEC during fiscal year 2018 — the amount the agency requested — which is a $131,000 increase over the previous fiscal year.

The report is “helpful in the sense that it’s going to provide concrete steps the FEC is taking to combat foreign interference in American elections,” said Tyler Cole, the legislative director and policy counsel at Issue One. “It’s an opportunity to inform Congress about any shortcomings in the process — if they need more resources, if they need more legislative authority.”

Several lawmakers have dropped bipartisan bills aimed at tackling foreign influence in elections — including some aimed at creating more disclosure rules for foreign advocacy and online advertisements — and Cole says he hopes “that [bipartisan collaboration in Congress] trickles down to the agency commissioners themselves.”

Last month, the FEC reached a so-called conciliation agreement with the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate Ben & Jerry’s co-founders announce effort to help 7 Dem House challengers Dems look to Gillum, Abrams for pathway to victory in tough states MORE (I-Vt.), in which the campaign paid a $14,500 fine “without admitting liability” for accepting work from young Australians.

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) paid for the workers’ stipends and transportation costs, a finding the FEC said was a “prohibited in-kind foreign contribution.” ALP also paid a $14,500 fine for the $23,422 it spent on the workers, which were part of a government-funded education program.

Campaign finance advocates hailed the move, a relatively rare enforcement action from the often-deadlocked watchdog agency. Yet, they say more can — and should — be done.

“It shows they’re aware of the issue, [the FEC is] going to be held accountable to Congress, specifically on threat of foreign interference in our election through our campaign finance system,” said Stephen Spaulding, a former senior counsel to former Democratic FEC Commissioner Ann Ravel who is now the chief of strategy and external affairs for Common Cause. “Unfortunately, for years, the FEC’s Republicans didn’t want to address the problem.”

Hunter, however, says that many of the proposals from Democrats in recent years have gone beyond the commission's statutory authority, including applying federal campaign finance laws to state and local ballot initiatives.

"Any notion that a foreign government is meddling in our elections is an issue we take very seriously. In the past, proposals from the Democrats have not been in line with our statutory authority or they have been unhelpful and misleading. It leads people to believe that we have more authority over these things than we do," Hunter said on Thursday.

The FEC is comprised of six people, including a chair and a vice chair, with appointees split equally among Democrats and Republicans. Currently, however, there are only four commissioners — two Republicans, one Democrat and an independent — all of whom are serving on expired terms.

The agency has long been mired in gridlock, with Republicans taking a more narrow view of campaign finance laws and Democrats pushing for more expansive enforcement actions.

During a commission meeting last July, tempers flared as Republicans and Democrats sparred over how the FEC should act upon reports of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub urged a “prospective” approach that looked toward the congressional midterm elections in 2018, writing a paper that suggested receiving open- and closed-door briefings from Justice Department and other federal officials and analyzing whether the FEC should set up a "task force" to better enforce "foreign-influence matters," among other things.

The three GOP commissioners at the time released a joint statement saying that acting too quickly could be “premature and counterproductive,” but added they would reconsider whether to do so “if new evidence emerges that changes this factual predicate.”

Weintraub also advocated tightening corporate disclosure rules to root out any foreign cash, which strikes at the heart of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations to spend unlimited money in elections so long as it isn't connected to a campaign.

“I really don’t want us to find ourselves two years from now looking back and saying despite everything that we read in the newspaper, we decided to delay taking any proactive action and then we find ourselves facing a new round of allegations coming out of the 2018 election," she said.

Kilmer told The Hill that the report requested by a Congress would be a valuable tool for the FEC to assess its own capabilities and either show it has the tools to react to foreign influence or ask Congress for help.

Last week, the FEC put out two proposals, split along party lines, to create news disclosure rules for digital advertising for campaign solicitations; both would establish new and stricter disclaimer regulations for advertisements on the Internet. Public comments are due in 60 days.

Cole says the lack of transparency around advertising is “only a small part of the foreign influence problem, and not a panacea,” but called the proposal a good start.

Internet-based ads consisted of less than 1 percent of political ad spending in 2014, totaling $71 million, according to a report cited by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP).

It’s projected that the 2018 midterms will usher in $1.9 billion in digital advertising, or 22 percent, according to the advertising research group Borrell Associates.

The policies around disclaimers for campaign advertisements on the Internet were last updated by the FEC in 2006. It first began to seek comment on the issue on 2011.

Legislation, including a bill from Kilmer and companion legislation in the Senate, has been introduced to require greater disclosure of online political ads. Those bills have not gained any traction.

During the 2016 election, Russian propagandists purchased more than $100,000 in ads from Facebook, the company said late last year.

 

— Post was updated at 4:10 p.m.