No News is Big News at the FEC

The news out of yesterday's Federal Election Commission (FEC) meeting is that there is, yet again, no news to report.  The FEC has delayed a final vote on an advisory opinion which was jointly requested by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and the National Republican Congressional Committee. If this stalemate continues, it will be merely the latest in an unprecedented string of partisan deadlocks.

By law, no more than three of the six commissioners may be drawn from the same political party.  Because the FEC can only take action when at least four commissioners agree, its decisions have always been subject to partisan deadlock.  However, as a 2009 Washington Post editorial put it, "[T]hose deadlocks have tended to arise sporadically, and in ideologically or politically charged cases, not in run-of-the-mill enforcement actions."  Until 2008, the FEC was able to reach a decision more than 98 percent of the time.

But two years ago, this trend was reversed.  The agency was stymied by a partisan deadlock 16 percent of the time in 2009 and 11 percent of the time in 2010.  A recent New York Times editorial lays out two of the most recent examples: on March 4, the FEC was unable to approve its professional staff's recommendations for enforcement actions against two state political parties (the Kansas Republican Party and the Georgia Democratic Party) which had clearly violated campaign finance laws. 

Things are only going to get worse next month, because five of the six commissioners' terms will expire by April 30.  Last week, a number of campaign finance reform groups sent a letter to President Obama urging him to move to nominate new commissioners.  Unless that happens, it seems likely that the biggest news out of the FEC will continue to be no news at all.

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