Bipartisan Bill Would Restructure FEC to End Gridlock

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By Kenneth P. Doyle

A measure reintroduced in the House last week seeks to reorganize the structure of the Federal Election Commission, such as by reducing the number of members from six to five and strengthening the role of the agency’s chairman.

Backers of the bill (H.R. 2034), which has gained bipartisan support in the House, say it’s needed to restore respect for campaign finance laws that have been poorly enforced by the current FEC.

“This rare, bipartisan legislation would change the design of the dysfunctional Federal Election Commission for the better,” Meredith McGehee, policy chief at the nonprofit Issue One, said in a statement. “From the moment the FEC was conceived, members of Congress have sought to undermine the agency’s oversight of elected officials.”

“The measurement for being an FEC commissioner is not just party loyalty, but ideological fealty,” she said. “If that commissioner is a Republican, that has translated in the past decade to nullification.”

Growing Support

Many Republicans on Capitol Hill and elsewhere have defended the current FEC structure and the role of Republican commissioners in preventing aggressive enforcement of campaign finance laws.

McGehee acknowledged that strengthening the FEC has historically been unpopular with congressional leaders from both major parties, and any changes face entrenched opposition, especially from GOP leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), she told Bloomberg BNA.

But there is “growing bipartisan agreement” among rank-and-file lawmakers that “something must be done,” she said.

The main area of agreement, McGehee said, is that laws remaining on the books, such as restrictions of candidates’ coordination with outside groups that collect and spend unlimited contributions to influence campaigns, should be enforced.

Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and Jim Renacci (R-Ohio), the primary sponsors of an FEC revamp bill in the previous Congress, have been joined this year by a bipartisan group of 10 other co-sponsors, including conservatives like Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) and liberals like Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.).

Proposed Structural Changes

The current six-member FEC, structured to include three Democrats and three Republicans, has repeatedly deadlocked along party lines on enforcement in coordination cases and on other key matters. The new bill would reduce the number of commissioners to five: two from each major party and one independent.

Instead of requiring a bipartisan, four-vote majority for any FEC action, just three commissioner votes would be required.

The legislation also would provide for a stronger FEC chairman, appointed for a fixed 10-year term by the president, with stronger administrative and investigative powers. The FEC currently is structured to have a weak chairman, with the position rotating annually among all the commissioners.

The structural changes would not take effect until 2020, providing time for appointment of a new FEC chairman and commissioners. It would also provide for a “Blue Ribbon Commission” of former judges and other experts to recommend who should be appointed to the FEC.

The current process for FEC appointments relies heavily on recommendations from leading Democratic and Republican lawmakers, with nominations ultimately made by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

‘People’s Advocate’

Kilmer said in a statement on introducing the bill April 6 that it was needed to help “bring people-power back to this Congress.” The FEC was designed to be “the people’s advocate in elections,” but has become even more gridlocked than Congress itself, he said.

Congress in the past has stalled on campaign finance reform, such as gridlocking on measures to provide greater disclosure of sources of campaign money.

“Meaningful, substantial reforms at the Federal Election Commission need to happen so it can get back to weeding out campaign finance abuse and holding those who skirt the rules accountable,” Kilmer said.

In the same statement, Renacci also emphasized the FEC’s role in enforcing campaign finance laws. He said that “due to the commission’s current structure, it is not operating efficiently or effectively, which is unfair to hardworking American taxpayers.”

The public expects election laws to be properly followed and enforced, regardless of party ideology, Renacci said.

“It is important that these reforms are made to the FEC in order to hold politicians accountable to the American people,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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