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FEC Offers Post-BCRA Legislative Ideas

In its annual spring ritual, the Federal Election Commission is preparing to send Capitol Hill lawmakers a package of legislative recommendations ranging from an increase to the cap on donations between campaigns to a pay raise for the watchdog agency’s general counsel.

“We hope these recommendations can assist Congress in bringing to fruition some necessary changes in campaign finance law,” FEC Chairman Brad Smith explains to President Bush in a draft letter that will accompany the proposed suggestions, which FEC commissioners are set to vote on today.

Once approved, the package of recommendations will be transmitted to both Congress and the White House for consideration.

Seven of the 12 proposed legislative recommendations are new proposals that in several cases seek to clarify specific legal issues that have become murky with the implementation of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.

For instance, the FEC would like Congress to make clear that candidates for federal office may use their campaign funds to make donations to state and local candidates, or for any other purpose so long as the money isn’t converted to personal use.

Under the current law, there are four explicitly permitted uses of campaign funds — authorized expenditures in connection with the candidate’s campaign for office, ordinary and necessary expenses incurred in connection with the duties of the federal officeholder, contributions to charitable organizations, and transfers, without limitation, to national, state or local political party committees.

However, following the enactment of BCRA, election law no longer states that campaign funds can be used for “any other lawful purpose” beyond those four explicitly permitted uses, and the FEC said it has been frequently asked whether the law still permits candidates to dip into their coffers to make contributions to nonfederal campaigns.

Commissioners also plan to ask Congress to increase the amount of money that candidates’ campaign committees can give to authorized political committees of any federal candidate from $1,000 to $2,000.

While BCRA increased individual contribution limits to federal campaigns from $1,000 to $2,000 per election, it did not increase the “support” limitation for authorized committees, an omission that the FEC noted “may have been an oversight.”

The FEC will also encourage Congress to change the language it uses to initiate investigations from “reason to believe” — which it contends is misleading and inappropriately suggests that the FEC has already determined that the subject of an investigation has violated the law — to “reason to open an investigation.”

The draft proposal suggests that it would be “helpful to substitute words that sound less accusatory and that more accurately reflect what, in fact, the Commission is doing at this early phase of enforcement.”

In the area of disclosure, the FEC states that another top priority is mandatory electronic filing of Senate candidate reports for those campaigns raising or spending in excess of $50,000 per year.

Moreover, if Congress does not change the point of entry of filings for Senate elections — a move that is under consideration by some high-ranking Senate lawmakers — the FEC would like all electronically filed statements, reports and notifications pertaining to Senate campaigns to be forwarded to the FEC within 24 hours so they can be posted on the Internet.

According to the FEC, reports filed electronically can be posted on the Web within five minutes, whereas paper filings can take anywhere from 48 hours and detailed information on paper can take up to 30 days to appear in the FEC’s databases.

Moreover, disclosure delays would “severely impede the effective implementation” of several portions of the new campaign finance law, including the “millionaire’s amendment,” which is predicated on the timely availability of disclosure documents, the FEC noted.

The FEC would also like Congress to increase the pay rate for the agency’s top lawyer. Currently the compensation for the FEC general counsel — who oversees the agency’s 125-person law office — tops out at $128,200, meaning the general counsel is paid less than the highest paid GS-15 (the top level of the federal government’s standard pay scale) in the Washington, D.C., area.

The FEC’s draft recommendations argue that this pay and benefit structure “hinders the [FEC’s] ability to recruit talented executives from other agencies and retain high-performing senior managers.”

The agency’s six commissioners are expected to approve these and other suggestions during an open meeting today.

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