A Dysfunctional FEC? Calling Inigo Montoya

June 17, 2015   •  By Brad Smith   •    •  

We hear a lot these days about a “dysfunctional” Federal Election Commission, including from the Agency’s own Chair, Ann Ravel, who, after a promising start, has apparently decided it’s not worth the trouble to work constructively within the Agency she nominally heads, and Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, whose lengthy tenure has coincided with the alleged agency problems against which she rails.*

Of course, the claim of a dysfunctional FEC has been a stock trope of the so-called “reform” community for, literally, decades. The claim, as I’ve pointed out in the past, serves as a handy all-purpose excuse for the general failure of campaign finance regulation to achieve its stated objectives. If there is one thing that the “reformers” would hate more than the existing FEC, it would be a new agency headed by someone like Don McGahn (or, come to think of it, Lee Goodman, Caroline Hunter, or Matthew Petersen). Their complaint is not really the FEC, but the law, which, hemmed in by the First Amendment and driven by a real world in which speech costs money and political speech is a good thing, is too often not as they would like it.

Still, the credulous media, like Charlie Brown asking Lucy to tee up the football, loves the “dysfunctional” story and repeats it continuously – for over a quarter century, in fact (at least Charlie Brown recognizes he is being played for a fool). For example, recently Dana Milbank, conventional media wisdom arbiter of The Washington Post, claimed that the FEC is the best example of “all that is broken in Washington.”


Yet, because Commissioners Ravel and Weintraub have been unable to convince a majority of the Commissioners at the FEC that their interpretation of the law is correct, it is the FEC that is labeled “dysfunctional” and the “poster child” for “all that is broken in Washington.” That lack of perspective may represent even better than any of the examples above why many consider Washington generally to be “dysfunctional” or “broken.”

We tend to think that these repetitive examples of government incompetence, biased enforcement, and massive breaches of sensitive, personal information of government employees, contractors, and American citizens generally should give us all pause before handing more power to the government to regulate political speech and to require excessive disclosure of personal information about historically private political conversations and contacts. Government serves certain necessary and important purposes in the world, but it works best when constrained to its core responsibilities. Beyond that, there are also many things it simply cannot do well, and many things it shouldn’t do. Regulating core political speech is one of those things.

We look at what is happening in government today, with massive overreach causing significant and apparently regular breakdowns, and we’re supposed to conclude that the FEC is “dysfunctional” because Commissioners Weintraub and Ravel can’t whip up four votes for their rather creative interpretations of federal law? Dysfunctional? Cue Inigo Montoya.

*The Chair hasn’t specifically called her agency “dysfunctional.” Her exact words were, “worse than dysfunctional.”

Brad Smith

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