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Lott Weighs Push To Reform FEC

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), furious over the Federal Election Commission’s lack of enforcement capability, said he is ready to take the first step in restructuring the watchdog agency.

Just as the FEC is about to weigh in on the controversial issue of so-called 527 organizations, Lott — who chairs the Senate Rules and Administration Committee — said he is considering holding hearings this year on a major reorganization of the FEC.

Lott said that he was moved to action because the FEC is “not doing [its] job.”

“It is almost like it is set up so that it can’t produce a result,” Lott said of the commission’s current composition, which is evenly divided between three Democrats and three Republicans. “They can’t produce the votes. They can’t get a majority vote.”

For Lott, the commission’s handling of the 527 issue was the last straw. Currently, the FEC does not regulate the activities of these tax-exempt groups that have multiplied in number and influence ever since President Bush signed sweeping campaign finance legislation in 2002. The legislation bans the use of unregulated soft money by political parties but does not specifically bar 527 groups.

“If you are concerned they are not able to do the job that needs to be done, you try to find out what is the solution,” Lott said.

The commission’s two top-ranking members welcomed Lott’s interest in holding hearings, suggesting that they will provide a forum to counter misinformation frequently circulated about the FEC.

“If the chairman wants to have a hearing, we’d be happy to have a hearing,” FEC Vice Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, said in an interview.

An oversight hearing conducted last year by the House Administration Committee was “very constructive” Weintraub added. “Members had a lot of positive things to say,” she said.

However, Weintraub contested Lott’s “assumption that we are not getting our job done at the agency.”

She acknowledged the FEC’s heavy workload. The commission’s staff has estimated that the agency will be responsible for policing $4 billion in total disbursements from 8,000 committees under the commission’s purview during the 2004 campaign cycle. That entails approximately 90,000 separate reports and 3 million itemized transactions.

But Weintraub contends that the agency is completely prepared for the job ahead.

“That’s a lot of business, and we have fewer than 400 staff people to process those reports, get them up on the Web, handle complaints,” she said. But, she added, “We’re going to do it, and it will all be up on the Web in short order.”

Weintraub added that the agency has been improving its enforcement process and has made “real progress” in picking up the pace. In fiscal 2003, the FEC closed 535 cases in one year and collected civil penalties totaling $2,747,603.

Republican FEC Chairman Brad Smith echoed Weintraub’s sentiments, saying he looks forward to an oversight hearing, “if the Senate so desires, in order to address a great deal of misinformation about the commission which has been spread by those who seek to use the commission to expand the scope of laws passed by Congress, as interpreted by the courts.”

Smith added that he found Lott’s comments “helpful” and emphasized that he has always “encouraged members of Congress to exercise their oversight authority.”

McCain and Feingold, the co-authors of the campaign finance reform bill, embraced Lott’s willingness to hold a hearing on the future of the FEC.

If the hearings are held, Feingold said, they will expose “the inherent problems with the FEC. The way it is set up will never work the way it should because of this even split between the parties.”

“He needs to do that,” McCain said. “We need a different kind of agency.”

Weintraub disputed the idea that the FEC has an inherent problem reaching decisions on matters. She called the impression that there are 3-3 deadlocks at the commission “a canard.”

“The commission works very hard not to fail,” said Weintraub, who acknowledged that “it does happen sometimes, and it’s troubling when it happens.” Such deadlocks do not substantially interfere with the FEC’s work, she suggested.

Critics of the FEC have suggested a variety of alternatives to the current 6-member panel, including everything from making the FEC a three- or five-member body to allowing a panel of federal judges to choose potential candidates for the watchdog agency.

Lott said he is not sure when the hearing would take place, but the Mississippi Republican held a hearing in the Rules Committee on the use of 527s in March. At that hearing, McCain and Feingold testified about the need for the federal government to police 527s, which are expected to play an important role in the November elections.

“Groups that claim a tax exemption because their primary purpose is to influence elections should be required to register as political committees with the FEC, unless their activities are entirely directed at state and local elections,” Feingold said at the March 10 hearing.

While FEC commissioners Scott Thomas, a Democrat, and Michael Toner, a Republican, have been pushing their own proposal for regulating 527s, other members of the FEC have expressed displeasure about the wisdom of cracking down on the groups, particularly this late in a major campaign cycle.

These committees were pioneered by Republicans in the days before McCain-Feingold. They have grown in importance to Democrats, who have used them to overcome the ban on soft money, which closed off a fundraising mechanism the party once relied on heavily. After the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, Democratic activists quickly began setting up 527s with innocuous sounding names such as America Coming Together and the Media Fund to bankroll advertising campaigns against President Bush.

Some Democrats argue these organizations help them to level the playing field against a better financed Republican Party. But Republicans cried foul, contending that such groups were violating the letter and the spirit of the campaign-finance law as upheld by the Supreme Court. GOP officials called on the FEC to craft new regulations to rein in the groups.

Lott suggested his call for hearings to examine restructuring the FEC will cause some major concern at the commission.

“We have been thinking about this for months, but it makes [them] very nervous when we start talking about it” he said.

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