Yesterday’s decision by the Federal Election Commission to hold the line on spending rules for interest groups – essentially a vote not to open a new loophole allowing the kinds of unrestricted ad budgets we’ve seen in the past – was revealing in a couple of different ways.
First I should define the word “decision” in this case. Like so many FEC rulings, it was really a non-decision – the result of a 3-3 split between Democrats and Republicans on the six-member commission.
The first thing it tells us is those days of 3-3 split decisions are still with us – as in fact they have been throughout the history of the FEC in many of its most important cases. That’s a sign right there that something’s wrong – that the commission that’s supposed to be the arbiter of federal election laws was set up not over the election process, like a panel of disinterested judges, but as a part of it.
Critics have long argued that this federal agency was set up to fail from the beginning. For one thing, if you want tough decisions, why create an even-numbered panel? And why stock it – as it’s been reliably stocked over the years – with three Democrats and three Republicans – a guarantee that on most substantive issues a 3-3 deadlock is the most likely outcome?
Secondly it tells us that the interest groups – on both the right and left, I should add – have still not really accepted the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms passed by Congress in 2002. That law eliminated not only unlimited “soft money” contributions to the national parties, but last-minute “issue ads” funded by soft money that claimed to be all about issues but in fact were all about electing and defeating candidates.
The law was challenged in the courts almost the instant it was passed by Congress, and even after being upheld by the Supreme Court, it’s still being challenged in a friendlier venue – the FEC – where repeated attempts have been made to wedge open new loopholes.
Yesterday’s attempt failed. But don’t think for a minute this will be the last stab at gutting the law. Interest groups with millions to spend – and billions at stake in decisions made by Congress – will never stop pushing the envelope of campaign finance laws, testing here, probing there, fashioning new loopholes – even taking chances with questionable actions and hoping for lax enforcement after the election is over.
That’s because in politics, as in football, winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. Any rules restricting the power of deep-pocketed interest groups to blast away with everything they’ve got are going to be resisted with all their might.
It’s a sobering thought, but like it or not the FEC is the nation’s last line of defense for some semblance of fairness on the political playing field. Yesterday they held the line. Tomorrow… well, cross your fingers.