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January 9, 2008

FEC Now An Advisory Board

The Federal Election Commission will not issue rulings for the foreseeable future, but only advisory opinions. The FEC no longer has enough directors to meet its quorum requirements, and thanks to a standoff between Congress and George Bush, it cannot enforce federal election laws:

Down to two members and unable to muster a quorum, the Federal Election Commission has decided to offer advice instead of binding decisions on questions from political campaigns.

This week, organizations with pending requests for decisions from the six-member FEC on campaign matters received phone calls from agency staffers letting them know not to expect formal rulings anytime soon.

The groups were told that the FEC's two remaining members will hold a public hearing Jan. 24 to share their informal views on the requests. The board lacks the four votes needed for the commission to take official action on a number of matters, including enforcement cases.

The only two commissioners on the panel, Republican David Mason and Democrat Ellen Weintraub, now have to agree even to get an advisory from the FEC panel. When they cannot reach agreement, the FEC will remain silent on the question. And in all cases, even if they agree that enforcement action needs to be taken, they cannot order it. It takes at least four members to constitute a quorum, which is required for any enforcement order.

Congress has refused to act on Bush's first nominee to the panel, Hans von Spadkovsky. Spadkovsky served on the Civil Rights Commission and annoyed Democrats by supporting a Texas redistricting plan that put Democrats at a disadvantage. Spadkovsky also supports photo-ID checks at election precincts, as passed by the state of Georgia. The Democrats want to make an example of Spadkovsky, and Bush refuses to withdraw his nomination -- and no others will come for the other three vacancies until Spadkovsky gets his hearing.

This explains one facet of the recent Democratic decision not to go into recess. The Senate has been gaveled into session every couple of days over the last two holiday breaks for the purpose of keeping Bush from using recess appointments. Spadkovsky would likely have been the most tempting choice for Bush.

At least it would have gotten the FEC back on the job. Most of the electoral regulations they have been charged with enforcing are ridiculous, but if the government wants these rules enforced, then they have to provide the means with which to enforce them. Given that most of the campaign-finance "reforms" implemented since Watergate came overwhelmingly from Democrats, one might figure that the impending free-for-all might damage them most -- and give them more incentive than the Republicans to end the standoff.

Actually, a defanged FEC may be the best thing for the nation. Why not try a cycle where we jettison the Byzantine rules on contributions and restrictions on political speech? Perhaps we might just find out that we only need an FEC to ensure that all contributions and outlays get immediately reported for voters to peruse, and the proliferation of 527s could simply vanish as people can support their favored candidates as they wish.

How about that idea, Congress? How about allowing Americans full freedom to conduct political speech? Or, alternatively, they can work with the White House to provide proper staffing at the FEC. It's their choice, but the status quo makes everyone look ridiculous.


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