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Campaign Cash Rules Drown in the Bathtub

The FEC has yet to issue any rules interpreting the Citizens United decision of nearly four years ago.

Grover Norquist speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

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I’m speculating here, but as we approach year’s end, I assume that Grover Norquist hasn’t been visited by Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future and found spiritual redemption. Nonetheless, I’m betting that Grover Norquist feels pretty good. Just not in a Santa Claus kind of way; more like one of those evil geniuses in bad movies who rubs his hands together and cackles, “At last, my plan is working!”

Norquist, president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, is infamous for his expressed desire to shrink government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” And even though the new budget deal takes a feeble swipe at sequestration and the indiscriminate slashing of government funds, his wish may be coming true.

This thought springs from recent indications that what little power the government still has to regulate campaign finance donations — already whittled to a minimum by Citizens United and other court decisions — is being steadily eroded by funding cutbacks, intimidation, bureaucracy and an inability or refusal to enforce the few rules we have left.

In 2012, the Federal Communications Commission announced that commercial TV stations in the top fifty US media markets had to make available online data about who was paying for political advertising and how much was being paid, with the idea that this would become a requirement across the country in 2014.

Up to last year, the records had only been available if you went to your local station and demanded to see them – and were prepared to pay for the costs of copying anything you wanted to take away for closer study. So when the announcement of the new online rules was made, all of us who care about full disclosure of campaign contributions were delighted. This was a major step in the right direction.

But the problem, according to a new study by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, is that even among the records newly available online, “TV stations often fail to report even the most basic information about the political ads that outside groups buy on their airwaves… There’s no way to total reliably how much is being spent for or against a candidate, or, in some cases, who is doing the spending. A systematic review of 200 randomly selected ad buys made by outside groups found that fewer than 1 in 6 ads targeting federal candidates disclosed the name of the candidate or election mentioned.

Such omissions deprive the voting public of important information. TV ad files have become an increasingly important tool for tracking otherwise undisclosed political spending by groups that run the gamut from well-known trade associations and unions to lesser-known operations whose anodyne names offer little information about the financial or political interests behind them: “Americans for Job Security,” for instance, or “Checks and Balances for Economic Growth.” In the wake of court decisions making it easier to route big money through outside groups, broadcast political TV ads jumped to an estimated $5.6 billion in 2012 — up 30% from 2008. Yet in spite of this massive payday, stations still find it hard to fill out paperwork about their benefactors.

The rules for filing are complicated, unclear and often ignored. Omissions in the required documents abound — both Democrats and Republicans, organizations affiliated with them, and other special interests fail to provide complete information. Penalties for not doing so remain largely unenforced. There’s not even a standardized FCC form — many stations use one provided by the National Association of Broadcasters, the TV industry’s main lobbyist, or make up their own.

Why the foot dragging? According to journalist and former FCC adviser Steve Waldman, “When it comes to political stuff, there’s extra sensitivity at the commission because it’s the one area where Congress jumps up and down and says, ‘If you do that we’re going to come and slap you in the head.’” The Sunlight Foundation report also reminds us that the nomination of Tom Wheeler as the new FCC chair was momentarily held up by Senator Ted Cruz until, Cruz said, Wheeler agreed to make political ad disclosure “not a priority.” Here’s hoping that behind his back Wheeler had his fingers crossed.

But far more egregious is the state of the Federal Election Commission — created after the mortal sins of Watergate — even though it is finally back to its full slate of six commissioners after months of vacancies and rancorous deadlock. A comprehensive, six-month study by the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity reports that, “As the nation heads into what will undoubtedly be the most expensive midterm election in history and a 2016 presidential election that, in no small way, has already begun, the FEC is rotting from the inside out.

Bitter ideological warfare among commissioners and congressional and White House indifference have yielded an agency less able to fulfill its stated mission: to “prevent corruption in the federal campaign process by administering, enforcing and formulating policy.”

Among the center’s findings:

  • “The commission over the past year has reached a paralyzing all-time low in its ability to reach consensus, stalling action on dozens of rulemaking, audit and enforcement matters, some of which are years old.
  • “Despite an explosion in political spending hastened by key Supreme Court decisions, the agency’s funding has remained flat for five years and staffing levels have fallen to a 15-year low.
  • “Analysts charged with scouring disclosure reports to ensure candidates and political committees are complying with laws have a nearly quarter-million-page backlog. Commissioners themselves are grappling with nearly 270 unresolved enforcement cases.
  • “Staff morale has plummeted as key employees have fled and others question whether their work remains relevant. Among top FEC jobs currently unfilled or filled on an “acting” basis: general counsel, associate general counsel for policy, associate general counsel for litigation, chief financial officer and accounting director. The staff director doubles as IT director.”

The FEC has yet to issue any rules interpreting the Citizens United decision of nearly four years ago, nor is the White House or Congress inclined to help with any regulatory assistance or increased funding for the agency.

No wonder that, as Eliza Newlin Carney writes in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, “Perhaps invariably, elections continue to march toward less transparency and more deregulation, and lawmakers and federal agencies remain too paralyzed by discord to respond… If 2013 is any indication, the next wave of big money will draw plenty of headlines but little regulatory response.”

Such dysfunction is crippling us across the board. Morale is bad not only at the FEC but throughout the government. This year’s edition of an annual survey of federal employees, conducted by the Office of Personnel Management, finds job satisfaction at the lowest it’s been in the ten years they’ve been compiling statistics. And that was before the government shutdown in October.

“The survey results serve as an important warning about the long-term consequences of the sequestration and budget uncertainty,” OPM Director Katherine Arculeta wrote. “Without a more predictable and responsible budget situation, we risk losing our most talented employees, as well as hurting our ability to recruit top talent for the future.”

That ain’t the half of it. If the steady erosion of government’s regulatory function continues, expect more and more stories about failing bridges and highways, weakened enforcement of environmental safety measures, severe industrial accidents and outbreaks of illness linked to untested drugs and chemicals or contaminated food.

But I’m guessing it’s all smiles at Grover Norquist’s house. Government’s drowning and he does not even have to hold its head underwater. Politicians, their appointees and deep-pocketed special interests are doing the dirty work for him. Was there ever such a Christmas?

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