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Campaign Watchdog to Get New Blood, but Other Fixes Await

Now that the Senate Rules and Administration Committee has unanimously approved Republican Lee E. Goodman and Democrat Ann Ravel to serve on the Federal Election Commission, full Senate confirmation is expected to quickly follow suit.

The six-member FEC is down two commissioners, and the four who remain are all serving expired terms. Never a popular agency, the FEC has been through a particularly rough patch lately, hamstrung by constant stalemates and bitter disputes over even the most routine matters of business.

Goodman, a GOP election attorney, and Ravel, who chairs the California Fair Political Practices Commission, are sure to get an earful from watchdogs, lawmakers and political players if they join the FEC. With that in mind, here’s some unsolicited advice from this corner of Capitol Hill:

  • Sweat the Small Stuff

From Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., to Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, to former Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Ill., a long list of lawmakers have made headlines lately because their campaign treasurers apparently ignored the rules.

Sure, everybody makes mistakes, and the FEC sends out thousands of letters to campaign treasurers every year. But the scale and scope of recent alleged violations fuels the perception that the FEC’s constant bickering and mounting backlog of cases is fostering an “anything goes” environment.

Bachmann faces a federal grand jury probe and a potential House Ethics Committee investigation, not to mention possible FEC action, amid allegations involving her leadership PAC, a super PAC and suspected misuse of congressional staff resources — all during her presidential bid. Boehner is under questioning by the FEC for as much as $64,000 in in excess contributions. Jackson’s campaign treasurer failed to file reports for nine months before resigning a few days ago.

Like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose crackdown on petty crimes such as graffiti and subway fare evasion paved the way for dramatically lowered crime rates, the FEC needs to hold campaign treasurers (and their bosses) accountable if it has any hope of being taken seriously.

  • Don’t Muzzle Your Staff

One of the first items on the FEC agenda once new commissioners come aboard is likely to be a controversial plan, spearheaded by outgoing GOP Commissioner Donald F. McGahn II, that would block FEC staff members from sharing information about possible criminal violations with the Justice Department without a vote of approval from the full commission. Critics argue that federal officials are the only ones doing much campaign finance enforcement these days and warn that such limits on FEC staff would severely hobble the agency.

  • Update Your Rules

It’s been more than three years since the Supreme Court dramatically reordered the campaign finance landscape by tossing out limits on independent spending by unions and corporations, including incorporated nonprofits. But the FEC has yet to issue new regulations interpreting that ruling, leaving political players in a constant state of confusion about what’s permitted and what’s not. Campaigners on both sides of the aisle say they don’t want to have to guess what rules to follow.

  • Be Transparent

Critics say the FEC has invited scofflaws by failing to enforce the rules; the agency’s defenders say commissioners such as McGahn are doing a good job defending the First Amendment. But there’s no way to tell what’s really going on at the agency if it doesn’t respond to Freedom of Information Requests. Earlier this year, a federal appeals court agreed with the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington that the FEC had violated FOIA by refusing to respond in time to a CREW inquiry. The FEC has enough to do without battling in court to keep public information under wraps.

  • Play Nice

Anyone who’s covered the FEC for any length of time knows that relations between commissioners have deteriorated in recent years. Public meetings are marked by pointed disputes and often followed by opposing public statements. (One can only imagine what the closed-door meetings are like.) The FEC has always been a publicly derided agency and a tough place to work, but a little team building among the commissioners — sharing a beer or an iced tea, throwing a party for the staff — might restore some much-needed dignity and gravitas to a commission subject to growing criticism and frustration on both sides of the aisle.

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