Four years ago, President Barack Obama ran on a platform of change that included overhauling the campaign finance system.
But, as in many policy areas, Obama’s big plans for campaign finance reforms never quite panned out. Despite repeated pleas to Obama from watchdog groups to strengthen or even appoint new commissioners to the Federal Election Commission, the president had other priorities. Now Obama, swamped by unrestricted spending on behalf of his GOP opponent, has asked the FEC for help. But some reform advocates say it’s too little, too late.
In an FEC complaint filed June 19, the Obama campaign’s general counsel argues that GOP-aligned issue advocacy groups, namely American Crossroads and affiliated Crossroads GPS, violated election law by running campaign ads under the guise of a social welfare organization.
“Certainly, this outside money is going to be against Obama,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen. “I think, had he taken action and fixed the FEC, that would have at least [reduced the magnitude of the problem].”
The FEC is an independent agency that does not report to the president. A resolution on any issue requires the support of a majority of the body’s six commissioners. But the agency often splits along party lines, leaving key questions undecided. Gridlock is the likely outcome for the Obama complaint, experts said.
“It would not at all surprise me to see this complaint lead to a 3-3 deadlock,” Campaign Legal Center Senior Counsel Paul S. Ryan said. “The Republican commissioners seem very unwilling to enforce the laws they agreed to enforce. In terms of timeliness, the FEC normally takes in excess of a year.”
The biggest issue plaguing the commission today is that the terms of five of the six current commissioners have expired.
“It’s ironic that the Obama administration is filing [a complaint] with the FEC,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “You’re going to have Obama’s commission ignoring his own petition.”
Increasing gridlock at the FEC has prompted growing complaints from watchdog groups. The number of cases on which the commission has deadlocked is unprecedented in the agency’s more than 35-year history, according to Ryan.
Obama’s reluctance to address this particular campaign finance issue came as a surprise to observers with high expectations for the president. But many acknowledged the difficult politics associated with the confirmation process.
“Our demands for Obama to fix the FEC … would require the administration to take on [Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell and the Republicans in the Senate because they would filibuster any appointee who would be halfway decent,” Holman said. “I don’t know who would win that battle.”
Confirmation complications derailed Obama’s first and only FEC nominee, labor attorney John Sullivan.
White House officials said Obama remains committed to strong campaign finance enforcement. Eric Schultz, a spokesman for the White House, told Roll Call in an email that Obama “intends to nominate well-qualified candidates,” but he would not “speculate on future personnel decisions.”
Others were more critical of the president’s turnabout.
“It’s easy to have principles when it doesn’t cost you anything,” said Hans Von Spakovsky, a former FEC commissioner who is now a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “The real test of whether you stick to your principles is when to do so is going to cost you. I think the only way he would re-evaluate now is if he thought he would be at a money disadvantage.”
Though it is too late for Obama to make substantive changes to the FEC or to appoint new commissioners before the November elections, the campaign’s recent complaint could discourage some wealthy donors from giving to unrestricted groups, Sloan said.
“This is a legitimate complaint that won’t be resolved before the election. I suppose that does put people on notice,” she said. “Maybe this will intimidate people from donating because their name [might] one day be disclosed.”
Nevertheless, the complaint will likely do little to stem GOP fundraising. Groups such as Crossroads GPS have begun television ad buys worth tens of millions of dollars and they show no signs of slowing down.
The Obama campaign did not return requests for comment.