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Campaign finance advocates urge Obama to overhaul FEC

The terms of three of the six Federal Election Commission members have expired, but they continue to serve for lack of replacements. Reform advocacy groups push President Obama to appoint replacements to shake up the deadlocked panel.

March 16, 2011|By Kim Geiger, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Frustrated with the deadlocked Federal Election Commission, campaign finance reform advocates urged President Obama to nominate new members without delay.

The FEC is "spectacularly failing to meet its statutory responsibilities to administer and enforce the nation's campaign finance laws," eight advocacy groups told Obama in a letter Tuesday.

The groups, which include the nonpartisan Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center, have been urging Obama to choose replacements since 2009, when two of the six commissioners' terms expired. Another member's term expired in 2007. Without replacements, the two Democrats and one Republican whose terms have expired continue to serve.

More recently, the FEC's three Republicans and three Democrats have been locked in a heated dispute over whether the commission can, without new legislation, impose stricter requirements on groups that spend money to influence elections.

Democrats say those groups should be required to disclose the names of their donors. Republicans argue that requiring disclosure would be an overreach of the commission's power.

"There has never been a president who has professed to believe in these issues as much as Obama," said David Vance, director of communications at the Campaign Legal Center

By law, the commission cannot have more than three commissioners from a single party. But critics say the three Republicans vote as a block and resist compromise with their Democratic counterparts. With four votes required for the commission to act, critics say that the FEC has been rendered useless by a perpetual 3-3 split, and that new appointees might break the deadlock.

By May, the terms of five of the six commissioners will have expired. The only exception will be one Republican.

"These circumstances provide a unique opportunity for you to nominate five new commissioners and take steps to fundamentally change what is commonly recognized as the worst functioning government agency in Washington," the groups wrote.

But the nomination process, which traditionally involves cooperation with leaders from both parties in Congress, is fraught with political risk. Ironically, Obama was among the senators who blocked such nominations the last time the panel was reshaped, under President George W. Bush.

Since moving into the White House, Obama has made just one nomination — to replace Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub. But her replacement's confirmation was blocked by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and then-Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), who objected to replacing just one of the three lame-duck commissioners. Traditionally, presidents nominate replacements as a bipartisan package to ensure swift Senate confirmation.

White House spokesman Reid Cherlin would not comment on the specifics of the letter, but said, "We support strong enforcement of our campaign finance laws and addressing any weaknesses in the current structure."

Donald McGahn, a Republican commissioner who has been most outspoken against new disclosure requirements that the Democrats and the advocacy groups are seeking, defended the process. "It's not like Obama has done nothing," he said. "He did put forward a name."

McGahn said the FEC critics "still haven't made peace with the fact that they got shellacked in court," referring to recent court decisions that weakened laws regulating campaign finance.

The advocacy groups want Obama to create a bipartisan advisory panel to recommend new commissioners, rather than relying on party leadership in the Senate to submit names.

That's a bad idea, said Hans von Spakovsky, who was appointed to the commission by Bush in 2006 but two years later withdrew his nomination to serve a full term after it was blocked in the Senate.

"That would destroy the credibility of the FEC's enforcement actions," he said.

kim.geiger@latimes.com

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