Can the Federal Election Commission Be Saved?

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Reviews of the effectiveness of Federal Election Commission — mandated by Congress back in 1975 to regulate campaign finance — have never been stellar, but lately the word most commonly used to describe it is “dysfunctional.” In the audio interview below, Michael Winship speaks with the Washington Post’s Matea Gold about what, if anything, can be done to break the gridlock at the FEC.

In an April editorial, The New York Times wrote that the FEC was “completely ossified as the referee and penalizer of abuses in national politics.” And The Boston Globe recently condemned it as an agency plagued “with leaders who rarely speak outside the confines of formal meetings, a staff of investigators who are routinely ignored, and a mandate that is rarely fulfilled.”

Deadlocked along party lines and riven by internal bickering, the commission has been unable to get much of anything done at a time when political spending is at a record-breaking high but less and less is known about where all the money’s coming from.

Despite this inertia, the Federal Election Commission has come under fire from both ends of the political spectrum. The right attacks it for regulatory overreach – allegedly impeding freedom of speech by trying to clamp down on campaign spending. The left has gone after it for “regulatory capture,” accusing the commission of being in the pocket of the very politicians and fundraisers it’s supposed to police.

Now the FEC is in the news with reports that Republicans on the commission are trying to force changes that would neutralize it even further – “a cynical move,” the Los Angeles Timeseditorial board opined, “giving candidates and special interests even more freedom to thumb their noses at campaign finance law.”

Meanwhile, President Obama has appointed two new FEC commissioners, their confirmation awaiting approval by the Senate. Some hope it could ease the FEC’s longtime gridlock. So it seemed like a good time to talk again with Matea Gold. After several years at the Los Angeles Times, she recently joined the Washington Post as a staff writer covering money and politics. The Federal Election Commission is part of her beat.


On Commissioner Don McGahn
“Don McGahn has been the most outspoken Republican on the commission in its current form. He has served on the commission for a long time now and in that course of time has been very vocal in clashing with the Democrats on the commission and — he feels — in trying to stop what he sees as overly zealous implementation of or overly aggressive interpretation of campaign finance rules. He is scheduled to be replaced by one of the two new FEC nominees that Obama put forward last month and their nominations are currently pending before the Senate.”

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