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'It's worse than dysfunctional'

More than ever, the nation needs a functioning Federal Election Commission. This doesn't currently exist and it's worth understanding why.
An employee at a money changer counts $100 bills.
An employee at a money changer counts $100 bills.
Last month, the Federal Election Commission was planning to host an event honoring the agency's 40th anniversary. In a dispute that seemed perfectly emblematic of the FEC's dilemmas, Democrats and Republicans on the commission couldn't agree on where to hold the gathering -- or what to serve for breakfast.
The ostensible purpose of the FEC is to enforce the nation's federal election laws, imposing at least some limits on the role of money in the political process. But as the New York Times reported, a combination of overlapping factors have created a Wild West-like environment in which the FEC struggles to complete basic tasks.

The leader of the Federal Election Commission, the agency charged with regulating the way political money is raised and spent, says she has largely given up hope of reining in abuses in the 2016 presidential campaign, which could generate a record $10 billion in spending. "The likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim," Ann M. Ravel, the chairwoman, said in an interview. "I never want to give up, but I'm not under any illusions. People think the F.E.C. is dysfunctional. It's worse than dysfunctional."

In theory, the role of a watchdog agency like the FEC has never been more important than it is right now. In the wake of the Citizens United case, the proliferation of super PACs, and the domination of so-called "dark money," the public desperately needs some kind of cop on the beat, serving as a check against candidate excesses and billionaires who hope to shape the American electoral process to advance their own agenda.
But as the need for a functional FEC grows, the commission itself is effectively paralyzed. The agency is led by six commissioners -- three Democrats and three Republicans -- who respond to every dispute with a 3-to-3 tie.
The Times' report added, "Some commissioners are barely on speaking terms, cross-aisle negotiations are infrequent, and with no consensus on which rules to enforce, the caseload against violators has plummeted."
For her part, Ann Ravel, who led California's state ethics panel before joining the FEC two years ago, had high hopes of getting the agency back on track, confident that she could "bridge the partisan gap" with the FEC's Republican members. Ravel has since discovered that this goal is simply impossible. Left with no choice, the FEC chair is now hoping to shed a light on the commission's paralysis.
And while it's easy to just roll one's eyes and conclude that this is just another example of Washington dysfunction in an era of Republican radicalism, it's important to appreciate the consequences of unenforced election laws.
The Times' article, for example, noted Ravel's frustrations "that Republican commissioners would not support cases against four nonprofit groups -- including Crossroads GPS, founded by Karl Rove -- accused of improperly using their tax-exempt status for massive and well-financed political campaigns."
Greg Sargent followed up with Ravel on exactly this point.

[The FEC chair] confirmed that she was referring to cases against four big spending outside groups -- all of them Republican or conservative. In these cases, some on the FEC had previously determined there is reason to believe the groups might be functioning more as "political committees" under the Federal Election Campaign Act -- meaning their "major purpose" is the "nomination or election of a candidate." That would mean that under the law, they should register as political committees, which would require donor disclosure. In all four cases, FEC chair Ravel and other commissioners had wanted the agency to investigate further. The facts involving these cases can be found in Ravel's statements about the groups: Crossroads GPS, Americans for Job Security, the American Action Network, and the American Future Fund.

"The impact of the failure to pursue them will be that the public isn't going to get the disclosure that it is entitled to," Ravel told Greg. "This is just about investigating, not making a final determination. It's about saying that, from the available information, it appears that these are in fact political committees and need to register with the FEC and disclose their donors."
That's clearly not going to happen, at least not any time soon, in large part because half of the FEC's commissioners won't let it.
It's true that the agency's authority to curtail abuses has long been a contentious issue, just as it's true that as long as there have been election laws, there have been ambitious candidates, activists, and lawyers looking for ways to circumvent them.
But since the reforms approved in the wake of the Watergate scandal, conditions just haven't been this ridiculous.