The FEC’s Christmas wish? To join the 21st century



White House Christmas Tree

Tuesday’s open meeting was the Federal Election Commission’s last of the year. Fittingly, the FEC unveiled its wish list for the new year — in the form of legislative recommendations to Congress. So what does the electoral watchdog want from Congress? Mostly, it wants campaign finance to enter the digital age. This year’s list featured four goals carried over from last year, including an item that’s long been on the Sunlight Foundation’s agenda, mandatory Senate e-filing. Outgoing Chair Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, was not overly optimistic for the legislative agenda’s chances, though she noted, “hope springs eternal.”

In the past, Sunlight has reported on the myriad of ways paper filing interferes with proper disclosure. In her final meeting as chair, Weintraub highlighted another: cost. The FEC believes that some $600,000 of taxpayer funds would be saved by modernizing the Senate filing process.

Along with e-filing reform, the Commission reiterated three other 2012 recommendations: Making the FEC’s administrative fine program permanent (the program has corresponded with a drop in late and nonfiled reports); extending the prohibition on personal use of campaign cash to cover all political committees; and for Congress to give the FEC the authority to create a higher class of senior executive positions to help attract more qualified individuals to its staff.

Should these perennial concerns finally spur congressional action, the changes will take place under a newly configured FEC. After a turbulent year — which saw a government shutdown, stalled presidential appointments and plenty of partisan bickering — Weintraub will pass the torch to newcomer Lee Goodman, a Republican. The FEC’s other recent appointee, Ann Ravel, a Democrat, will step into the vice chair post for 2014.

If the past few years are any indication, the new leadership won’t have it easy. Dave Levinthal, of the Center for Public Integrity, reports that the agency has increasingly deadlocked in partisan splits on important decisions as new court rulings have changed the landscape of campaign finance.

The same article cites slim resources and a lagging IT infrastructure as two of the factors the led to an October security breach by Chinese hackers that crashed the FEC’s computer systems during the government shutdown.

The security flaws exposed by hackers may be part of the impetus behind the FEC’s request that it be granted the authority to accept “gifts that will assist the Commission in carrying out its functions.”

Though it is not yet known exactly what form these gifts may take, the FEC is not asking for baseball tickets or flights to the Dominican Republic, but rather “donated services and products for information technology projects to promote and enhance the transparency of data disclosed to the government.” The stated goals of these donated services and products would be to facilitate transparency and allow for public data to be shared more quickly and made more accessible to the general public.

It is not clear whether the FEC has received any offers for these types of services in the past.

The other new recommendations include a provision that mandates electronic reporting (rather than paper) of electioneering communications from all super PACs and a measure that would increase and index for inflation reporting thresholds for political committees and parties. Goodman cited his experience counseling local party committees as evidence that the current thresholds — which have not been changed since the 1970’s — discourage small grassroots groups from participating in the political process for fear of noncompliance. “They often have volunteer treasurers,” Goodman noted, “when you overlay the federal [reporting] regime… some are simply unable to comply.”

The ball is now in Congress’ court. Lawmakers are slated to return to the Hill Jan. 7.