How to bolster federal elections
The Senate is about to consider the nominations of three new members of the Federal Election Commission. As one agency charged with enforcing campaign finance laws, like those for transparency in political spending, it plays a critical role in our system. For most of the last cycle, however, the Federal Election Commission has been run without a minimum number of members and unable to enforce the law. President Trump failed to swiftly nominate members. He and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are only acting to restore the minimum now in the lame duck session.
Restoring this minimum number of members to take action is important. But that is insufficient, since in order for the Federal Election Commission to be effective, it needs members who firmly believe in the mission of the agency and are dedicated to upholding the laws that protect the voices of all Americans rather than only political insiders and special interests. The hearing is an opportunity for the Senate to scrutinize the nominees.
The Senate should confirm members who are dedicated to enforcing the anticorruption laws which govern the campaign finance system. Failing to do so will simply fuel the dysfunction. The Federal Election Commission is led by six members who are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. There can also be no more than three members from the same political party. The agency needs the support of at least four members to enforce the laws, so having only three members can stop its work.
It has been the case over the last decade. Presidents tend to defer to the nomination recommendations by party leaders in Congress. McConnell, an avowed opponent of campaign finance laws, has only recommended Republicans who are also opposed to the mission of the Federal Election Commission. As presidents with both political parties have failed to make reform a priority, the agency has been mired in gridlock and dysfunction. The Federal Election Commission has allowed special interests across the political spectrum to break the rules with little recourse. Even in the face of clear violations of campaign finance laws, the agency has failed to use action by securing the votes necessary to start an investigation.
The agency refused to investigate a shell corporation that donated nearly $1 million to a super political action committee. It was later shown that a foreign fugitive had laundered the contribution with the shell corporation. In a clear illustration of the ideological rather than partisan nature for the divide, three Republican members refused to investigate a super political action committee that admitted to work with the Hillary Clinton campaign in ways that broke federal laws in 2016. It remains to be seen whether the agency will give a similar pass to those violations in the last cycle.
Such failures over the last decade have led to the dramatic rise in secret spending and our politics rigged in favor of special interests. So senators must remember that in the hearing today. More than 70 percent of voters across party lines said they want the agency to take a more active role in administering campaign finance laws to curb political corruption and to hold the candidates and their donors accountable in the system.
Senators should understand the level of commitment of the nominees to upholding the mission of the agency and their support for protecting the rights of voters to know who is trying to influence the federal government. Senators should ask the nominees what they would do as members of the Federal Election Commission to identify and close doors that could leave space for any undetected foreign interference in our democracy.
The structure of the Federal Election Commission needs an overhaul. But when Joe Biden takes office, he could start to improve it by promising to nominate members who are committed to the agency and its mission. His administration could assist the agency to fulfill its mission by creating the bipartisan panel of experts from diverse backgrounds to recommend a list of potential nominees with both political parties who will be committed to the enforcement of campaign finance laws. Biden should then make such recommendations public and have a pledge to reform the agency.
Trevor Potter (@TheTrevorPotter) is the president of the Campaign Legal Center who has served as chairman of the Federal Election Commission.