FEC oversight hearing: not necessarily what you think

Today the Subcommittee on Elections for the House Committee on Rules and Administration will hold an oversight hearing for the Federal Election Commission. This will be the first such hearing since 2004, and if the BNA Money & Politics Report (sorry folks, subscription required to the actual thing) is to be believed (not a rhetorical question) the “reform community” seems all but set to wet it collective pants in excitement. The BNA notes that “FEC critics have been calling for some time for Congress and the Obama administrationto make changes in the agency. A group of nine campaign reform groups called last February for congressional hearings to examine the operations of the FEC.” (In fact, reform organization web sites and press machines are pretty quiet about today’s hearing).

A few points to keep in mind:

1) It is incorrect to assume that an oversight hearing means Congress wants to explore the “reform community’s” agenda. Indeed, given Republican control of the House, it likely means the opposite. For commissioners interested in real reform and real performance – for example, getting the Commission to make the regulatory changes required by court decisions in Citizens United v. FEC, SpeechNow.org v. FEC, and Emily’s List v. FEC, without larding them up with disclosure regulations already rejected by Congress – regulatory oversight hearings can be quite helpful. During my tenure on the Commission, I was practically begging Congress to hold oversight hearings (finally done in 2004, during my year as Chairman) as a means to expose and shed light on, and therefore pressure the commission, to reform what I considered to be an enforcement system that ran roughshod over the due process rights of respondents.  I don’t think the Committee’s Chair called this hearing so he can beat up former RNCC Counsel and now Commissioner Don McGahn;

2) BNA reports that “congressional lawmakers exercise great influence over the agency behind the scenes, officials say.” I have no idea what anonymous officials are saying that, and it is certainly possible that the Commission has changed since my tenure (2000-2005). But that is not true of my time on the Commission. Indeed, for the most part, during my tenure commissioners had embarrassingly little contact with “congressional lawmakers” or their staff. The idea of congressional dominance of the Commission is an old “reform community” canard (they sometimes make up lies about it, such as saying that I actually lobbied congress on the McCain-Feingold bill, which is simply not true), and I suspect that BNA is merely reporting the talking points of the “reformers,” without much regard for their truthfulness or falsity. But I could be wrong.

3) The other complaints from reformers about the FEC – which dominate the BNA article – are merely the same things they’ve been saying for thirty years – the commission “deadlocks,” it is “dysfunctional” blah blah blah. We’ve debunked this type of stuff many times – for a just a taste of debunking, see e.g. here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and of course here.

For our purposes, we hope the Committee will hold the Commission’s feet to the fire. Here’s a good first question: Why have you held up constitutionally required changes to the regulations to comply with Citizens United and SpeechNow.org by insisting on adding in regulations already rejected by Congress in the so-called DISCLOSE Act? 


The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.