After hours of debate, there was little room for compromise between Democratic and Republican members of the Federal Election Commission at the agency’s open meeting on Thursday. The nation’s campaign regulator offered lots of talk, but little compromise — a recurring theme at the divided agency.
Democratic Chair Ann Ravel and Commissioner Ellen Weintraub’s recent petition for their own agency to initiate a rule-making process around dark money, coordinating of outside spending groups with campaign insiders and tougher regulation of foreign political money was met with skepticism from their colleagues on the other side of the aisle.
“The vast majority of citizens have deep concerns about the state of campaign finance,” Ravel told attendees, citing a recent poll from CBS and The New York Times showing that 84 percent of American adults believe that the current campaign finance regulations are in need of an overhaul.
Since taking the role of chair in 2014, Ravel has made engaging the public on campaign finance reform a key tenet of her tenure. A public call for comments in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. FEC decision drew more than 32,000 comments and an open event for members of the public drew over 100 attendees.
Her latest effort, however, wasn’t as straight forward.
Though the substance of the petition is sure to be a contentious topic among the ideologically split heads of the agency, most of Thursday’s discussion centered around procedural questions, with the debate turning heated at times.
Matthew Petersen, a Republican commissioner, raised the question of whether government officials are even allowed to petition their own agency under the Administrative Procedure Act. Specifically, Petersen questioned whether his Democratic colleagues were understood to be “people” as defined by the Federal Election Campaign Act, which established the FEC. Commissioner Lee Goodman, also a Republican, agreed, citing the practices of federal agencies and law review articles on the matter.
“That’s how bad it has gotten, my colleagues will not admit that I’m a person,” quipped Weintraub, adding “The notion that because I’m a member of this commission I’m not a person is dumbfounding.”
Procedural concerns aside, there were also, of course, substantive disagreements about the contents of the Democrats’ petition, which argues:
The Commission has not yet fulfilled its obligation to address the fact that Citizens United was premised on adequate disclosure of [dark money and super PACs]. Anonymous campaign spending will continue to diminish public faith in the political process until the Commission acts.
Per Commissioner Caroline Hunter, a Republican, “The premise of the document is misleading,” because the commission could not adopt stricter regulations on outside spending, anonymous or otherwise, without action from the courts or Congress.
Ultimately, the vote on the petition was held over until over the next open meeting in order to more fully explore the question of whether a commissioner-proposed petition is legally valid. Meanwhile, Public Citizen, a government watchdog organization, has already refiled the petition. In a press release, Craig Holman, the organization’s government affairs lobbyist, called the commissioners’ petition “an act of desperation … that would invite public participation in an effort to break the [FEC] logjam.”
In spite of the public skepticism of big political money, super PACs and political nonprofits are already gearing up for the 2016 election. A recent report from the Center for Public Integrity found that outside groups had already spent more than $1 million in negative ads aimed at the upcoming presidential race.
Dark money — political spending by groups that don’t disclose their donors — is also playing an increasingly large role on the campaign trail. A Sunlight Foundation analysis of dark money spending in the 2014 midterms found that these groups spent more than $150 million on direct political advocacy during that cycle, most of which came in the contest’s final weeks. The majority of that money supported Republicans.
You can see our weekly breakdown of dark money spending in the last cycle below. As for the petition for rule-making, commissioners will revisit the topic in the FEC’s next open meeting on July 16.