Recently, while doing some research for a school project, I was looking at the Wikipedia page of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to get a general overview of what that body does. As I was browsing the page, I noticed one sentence tacked right at the end of the first paragraph that seemed like it was placed there almost as an afterthought. It read, “due to multiple members resigning and no confirmed replacements, the commission lacks a quorum and cannot conduct most of its regulatory functions.” I had to doubletake, “cannot conduct most of its regulatory functions?” What could that possibly mean? The last time I checked we were in a presidential election year, and that would seem to be a ripe time for campaign oversight and regulation. I had to learn more.
For a little background as to what the FEC is, it is the primary regulator of campaign finance in the U.S., with jurisdiction over all federal elections. The commission has seating for six members where no more than three may be of the same party and are all nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Their website states that they regulate “public disclosure of funds raised and spent to influence federal elections, restrictions on contributions and expenditures made to influence federal elections and the public financing of presidential campaigns,” which are all incredibly important to the integrity of our elections.
Now, onto the reason that the nonchalant sentence in that Wikipedia has me flabbergasted. Although there are six commissioners, not all have to be there to vote on issues that come up, only a quorum — the minimum number of members of a body to be present for business to be taken care of — need to be present; in this case, it is four commissioners. The current number of commissioners, since September of last year, is three; meaning that for the past five months, the primary election law enforcement body of the nation is a lame duck, sitting with their thumbs twiddling and brains idle.
All of the information that campaigns and political committees are ordered by law to provide to the FEC is analyzed for irregularities or legal violations, but the commission does nothing with that information, because, according to the FEC website, “an affirmative vote by four commissioners [is required] to make decisions in many areas, including regulations, advisory opinions, audit matters, and enforcement,” and “political committees and other filers must continue to disclose their campaign finance activity to the commission on the regular schedule.” In essence, as campaigns send in their campaign finance information, the FEC does nothing. They can only do nothing. They can only do nothing, because they do not have the legal number of commissioners serving to make decisions.
As crazy as all of this may sound — and is — what is even crazier to me is that in these five months since the FEC became a powerless, ineffectual and effete shell of a government agency, there has been no coverage of it anywhere in the media. Most news stories I could find on this were put out in late August when Commissioner Matthew Petersen’s resignation was about to go into effect. The only news outlet that I could find that is consistently updating this situation is The Center for Public Integrity. The New York Times, The Washington Post and even NPR, who is a partner of The Center for Public Integrity, have done nothing to raise awareness of this issue or call any action to fix it. All are worrying because violations of federal campaign law are being discovered as I write this column.
The Center for Public Integrity wrote up an investigative piece on how often presidential candidates fail to pay or pay in full for services rendered unto them by local municipal governments to accommodate rallies held by the candidates. Some candidates are better at paying than others; Senator Bernie Sanders, for instance, has paid back all police security services his campaign was provided, albeit begrudgingly and taking years longer than what was probably liked. President Donald Trump, however, is notorious for not forking over money municipalities say are in order. Federal law states that “a political committee shall report a disputed debt … if the creditor has provided something of value to the political committee.” It would be hard to argue security at a Trump rally as “not something of value” considering how notoriously rowdy and violent they are. Yet, almost all campaigns do not report these debts to the FEC and are in violation of the law.
I bring this up because violation of federal campaign law would normally be under the purview of the FEC to investigate. Trump, being president and running for re-election, has the electoral and financial incentive to keep the FEC as useless as it is now; after all, he is the only person who can nominate people to the commission, and giving them teeth would mean giving them the power to go after him.
Despite bipartisan calls to fix the commission, the commonsense and rationality of such a move are lost in a whimper for reasons I cannot fathom. The president has not nominated anyone to the commission since 2017, with that nomination receiving no action in the Senate anyway. This was mainly due to the fact that the president broke the tradition of nominating both a Democrat and Republican and only nominating a Republican. The Senate Democrats gave the president a recommendation on a Democrat they would support for nomination, but this was ultimately ignored.
In the end, the most frustrating aspect for me is the lack of awareness of this issue among, well, anyone. We talk about “free and fair” elections all the time; we call the U.S. a “bastion of democracy” and “a city on a hill” for which other countries can look up to and say “this is who we aspire to be.” Ultimately though, this is a farce, a sham and a misrepresentation about what our true nature is because the apathy and carelessness shown here is the only thing we seem to really be good at and, ironically, care about. If we cannot care enough to spark some outrage at the complete dysfunction of the institution designed to, at the very least, keep up a charade of “free and fair” elections, then what do we care about?