EDITORIAL COMMENT: Barf alert!NY TimesHow Not to Enforce Campaign Laws
By ANN M. RAVELAPRIL 2, 2014
WASHINGTON — THE Federal Election Commission is failing to enforce the nation’s campaign finance laws. I’m in a position to know. I’m the vice chairwoman of the commission.
At my confirmation hearing last year, I promised to vigorously uphold those laws. I’ve been on the commission only six months, yet I’ve quickly learned how paralyzed the F.E.C. has become and how the courts have turned a blind eye to this paralysis.
The problem stems from three members who vote against pursuing investigations into potentially significant fund-raising and spending violations. In effect, cases are being swept under the rug by the very agency charged with investigating them.
The commission was created after the Watergate scandal to ensure that money given and spent in federal elections is disclosed so voters know who is trying to influence the outcome. This transparency is vital to our democracy, and even more so after the Supreme Court yesterday struck down aggregate limits on political contributions.
About $7 billion was spent by candidates, parties and outside groups during the 2012 election cycle, and groups are already gearing up for the 2016 presidential election. But the F.E.C. is failing in its job to ensure that voters know who is behind the rapidly proliferating political advertisements made possible by this extraordinary spending.
By law, no more than three of the commission’s six members can be from the same party. Four members must agree to begin an investigation. Unfortunately, the three Republicans often vote as a bloc against pursuing important matters.
Following a recent deadlock, the commission was sued by the groups Public Citizen and ProtectOurElections.org for failing to investigate whether Crossroads GPS, a so-called social welfare organization that spent millions on political advertising in the 2010 election cycle, was, in fact, a political committee that should disclose its funding sources.
Predictably, the commission deadlocked on whether to investigate. So unless Public Citizen and ProtectOurElections.org prevail in their lawsuit, there will be no inquiry, and Crossroads GPS will continue to spend millions of anonymous dollars to influence our elections.
Sadly, this case is not unique. In another recent case, the commission’s anti-enforcement bloc declined to investigate a “super PAC” that may have illegally coordinated with a Democratic congressional candidate, despite compelling evidence.
It should not have been a difficult decision to investigate Crossroads GPS. The commission’s lawyers determined that in 2010, the organization spent in excess of $20 million, more than half of its budget, on federal campaign activity. This is, to say the least, inconsistent with the spending pattern of a true social welfare organization. Steven Law, the president of Crossroads GPS, has been quoted as saying that he “wouldn’t want to discount the value of confidentiality to some donors.” His statement suggests that one reason the group may have avoided registering as a political committee is to attract donors.
In voting not to investigate, the commission’s anti-enforcement bloc disregarded clear facts and law. Instead, they took at face value self-serving statements from Crossroads GPS, like the group’s Articles of Incorporation, which state that it was created to “further the common good and general welfare.”
I believe that our failure to investigate is indefensible. Unfortunately, the courts traditionally have given great deference to commission decisions and, in cases like this, to the analysis of the three commissioners who vote not to pursue cases. This means that there is little meaningful judicial review.
Congress stipulated that the commission be bipartisan, to prevent one party from overreaching. But by deferring to the anti-enforcement bloc, the courts are undermining Congress’s intention to provide for meaningful enforcement of the nation’s election laws. The judiciary’s misguided deference — in effect, a rubber-stamp approval of inaction — encourages the commissioners not to cooperate with one another.
This has serious consequences. If the courts continue to defer to the F.E.C.’s inaction, groups like Crossroads GPS will continue to operate with impunity. Money from anonymous donors will continue to pour into elections. And voters will again be barraged with political advertising from unknown sources, making it difficult for them to make informed decisions. If we continue on this path, we will be betraying the public and putting our democracy in jeopardy.Ann M. Ravel is the vice chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission.