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Editorial: FEC Test

President Barack Obama obviously has enormously important problems on his plate, but he should find the time to set the Federal Election Commission on a more effective path by nominating three new commissioners.

As of Friday, he has the opportunity to nominate three of the dysfunctional agency’s six commissioners — two Democrats and one Republican. His choices, which will be coordinated with party leaders in Congress, will say a lot about what Obama thinks about campaign finance reform.

That, of course, is open to question. As a Senator, Obama was one of the most vociferous advocates of limiting the power of money in politics. As a bounteously financed presidential candidate, however, he reversed course and rejected public financing of his campaign, breaking a promise in the process.

During the transition, he assigned former FEC Commissioner Bob Lenhard and law professor Mark Alexander to review the agency. No report has ever been issued on their findings.

If Obama does not take advantage of his opportunity to reshape the commission, he will leave it gradually drifting toward irrelevance. Supposedly created to enforce the nation’s campaign finance laws, the FEC is becoming an anti-enforcement agency.

Even when the commission’s staff recommends an enforcement action and even when those involved agreed to pay a civil penalty, Republican commissioners have been voting to thwart action — even against Democratic groups and even when Democratic commissioners favor action.

Demonstrating an equal opportunity penchant for inaction, the Republicans voted to reject conciliation agreements — or “plea bargains— — from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s November Fund and a Democratic Congressional candidate’s campaign committee.

They also blocked staff-recommended enforcement actions against a former Washington state Democratic Central Committee member who allegedly embezzled $65,000; against billionaire investor George Soros, who allegedly failed to disclose independent expenditures in the 2004 presidential campaign; and against Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign, which the staff found accepted an illegal in-kind contribution of $150,000.

In three recent decisions, Republicans stopped proceedings against a Pennsylvania-based group, the Lantern Project, that took out ads sharply critical of former GOP Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.); the labor-backed American Leadership Project, which backed former Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) against Obama; and Americans for Job Security, a committee that allegedly collected and spent illegal “soft money.—

One of the commissioners whose term ends on May 1 and is subject to replacement is Republican campaign finance lawyer Don McGahn, widely regarded as the leader of the anti-enforcement GOP bloc.

As Roll Call reported on April 13, McGahn also advocates less public communication by the FEC. And, indeed, the commission has put out fewer statements and press releases this year than it did during the first half of 2008, when a prolonged battle between the White House and Senate Democrats over agency nominees effectively closed down the agency.

This is surely not Obama’s most portentous test, but it is a test: Does he believe in an effective FEC or not?

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