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Voters Deserve Better at Federal Election Panel

August 12, 2003|Lawrence Noble and Paul Sanford | Lawrence Noble is executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics and former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission. Paul Sanford is the center's general counsel and a former FEC staff attorney.

Just when you thought that things couldn't get any worse at the Federal Election Commission, they got worse. Democratic congressional leaders have recommended that Robert D. Lenhard be appointed to the FEC.

That's unfortunate. The FEC has already sunk to benthic depths, and Lenhard probably would take the agency down even further.

The FEC is like a captive agency, controlled by the people and organizations it is supposed to regulate. It has long been under the thumbs of congressional leaders and the political parties, to the point where the agency no longer sees its mission as enforcing the law. Instead, it acts as a referee, making sure neither of the two major parties gets an unfair advantage over the other.

The FEC's recent decision to allow the political parties to receive "soft money" for their political conventions is a good example. Never mind that the campaign finance laws say soft-money donors can't give to the conventions. As long as they give equally large amounts to both parties, the FEC says it's OK.

To this agency, Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi recommend adding Lenhard, the associate general counsel of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Daschle and Pelosi claim that Lenhard "will faithfully administer the new [McCain-Feingold] campaign finance reform law in accord with the intent of Congress." Not likely. As AFSCME's lawyer, Lenhard argued in court that the restrictions on sham-issue ads -- ads that attack or support a candidate under the guise of discussing an issue -- are unconstitutional.

Predictably, Lenhard's appointment has already been endorsed by a range of organizations that run those thinly disguised campaign ads.

What makes this worse is that Daschle and Pelosi recommended Lenhard to replace Commissioner Scott Thomas. Thomas' term has expired, but he is eligible for, and sought, reappointment.

Thomas has shown that he believes in the campaign finance laws. For example, he dissented last year when the commission issued rules that undermine the newly enacted McCain-Feingold law. You might have thought Thomas' actions would endear him to Daschle and Pelosi, who often claim they support the new law. Not so. Instead, they are punishing Thomas for the sin of taking Congress seriously when it voted to crack down on campaign finance abuses.

When Congress enacted McCain-Feingold, it made a commitment to enforcing the campaign finance laws. The Democratic leadership should reverse its hypocritical selection of Lenhard and honor that commitment by recommending the reappointment of Thomas.

A failure to do so would demonstrate that the only thing distinguishing the Democrats who claim they support the law from the Republicans who openly oppose it is that the Republicans are at least being honest about where they stand.

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