Delays in the ongoing court battle over the new campaign finance law and war in Iraq have temporarily stymied efforts to reform the Federal Election Commission, but activists promise the effort has not been forgotten and will be revived in the near future.
“It’s alive and well,” said Meredith McGehee, a lobbyist representing watchdog group Democracy 21 on the issue.
She said Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) have been working on legislation, which McGehee and others said could be introduced soon after lawmakers return from their spring recess.
Democracy 21 last year made the case for overhauling the watchdog agency in a 142-page report titled “No Bark, No Bite, No Point,” and McCain vowed in November to introduce legislation early in this Congress to do just that.
But McGehee acknowledged that the war in Iraq has clearly taken precedence over reform issues — at least for the time being.
“There’s a feeling it would not be the appropriate moment,” McGehee said. “People are distracted and thinking about other things. … I don’t think it’s time to be holding press conferences.”
Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer, emphasizing that he was not speaking on behalf of Members of Congress, said the “combination of … getting something drafted and the war” has slowed the process down.
“I think we’re pretty close now to a point where Members may be getting ready to introduce legislation,” Wertheimer said.
But Wertheimer said the relative silence on the issue for the past several months does not signal that reformers have dropped their charge against the agency.
“There is no question the offices and staffs have been working on putting together legislation,” Wertheimer said. “The effort is clearly alive and I very much expect it will go forward.”
Another source said the lag time between the war and the bill’s introduction is giving sponsors an “opportunity to canvas around and get extra support for it.”
“The war puts everything on hold, and everyone’s been waiting for the court case to come down,” the source said, referring to the three-judge panel expected to rule on the campaign finance law. “They’re just looking for a clear window to announce. It’s just a matter of time.”
Wertheimer summed up the FEC’s failures in two areas.
“One, the process for appointing commissioners has resulted in an agency over the years that is too responsive to the interests of parties and leaders that are appointing the commissioners,” he explained. “And it has failed to carry out its responsibilities to enforce the campaign finance laws effectively.”
The cure recommended by the Project FEC task force assembled by Democracy 21 and others would involve changing the way commissioners are appointed and revamping the agency’s enforcement procedures.
The task force has recommended that Congress create a new agency headed by a single administrator and make the new agency independent of the executive branch.
The task force also suggested that the new agency should have the authority to act to impose appropriate penalties on violators, including civil money penalties and cease-and-desist orders, subject to judicial review. It recommended a system of adjudication before administrative law judges would be incorporated into the new enforcement agency.
“You need a real change in the structure and culture of the enforcement process so that the agency is in fact independent from the regulated community and sees its responsibilities as effective oversight and enforcement of the campaign finance laws,” Wertheimer said.
While McCain is expected to lead the charge in the Senate, the committee with jurisdiction over any legislation will be the Rules and Administration Committee chaired by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who has made little secret of his disdain for McCain’s other reform efforts.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a close ally of McCain’s and one of the few GOP co-sponsors of his campaign finance reform legislation, was expected to head the panel until Lott stepped down from his leadership post late last year and was given the chairmanship as a consolation prize.
But McGehee said she isn’t worried about that becoming a stumbling block for FEC reform efforts.
“You have to remember, we had [Sen.] Mitch McConnell [R-Ky.] there before,” she said, in reference to McConnell’s stalwart opposition to the McCain-Feingold bill when he chaired the Rules and Administration Committee in the 106th Congress.
“Is it a help? No, but at the same time you have to approach this enforcement issue from a bit of a different perspective,” McGehee said, noting that there are a “lot of Republicans and conservatives around town who like to talk about their law and order except when it comes to themselves.”
Rather than a philosophical fight about campaign finance contribution limits, McGehee said this issue comes down to whether people “believe politicians should be coddled and treated differently.”
On a related front, Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) are still pursuing efforts to have the FEC’s rules implementing portions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act struck down in court.
Their case, which was filed in October, is being handled by Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who is also one member of the three-judge panel expected to hand down the initial ruling on McCain-Feingold any day now.
Until then, reformers are expecting little movement on the Shays case — in which complaints have been filed but no hearings have yet been scheduled.
Those same lawmakers had initiated a parallel effort last fall to have the FEC’s soft-money regulations struck down via the Congressional Review Act, but those efforts fell flat.
McGehee said it quickly became clear that there simply wasn’t enough support to use the CRA, but another source said there were unclear legal implications of that approach.
Another source familiar with that effort said there was “some risk” associated with the CRA and “some dispute legally” as to whether they could have just the portions of the regulations they opposed thrown out, or whether they would in fact be revoking all the rules implementing the new law.
“The answer was it was much better to challenge it in court, where you could be specific,” the source explained.