Common Cause Pushes FEC to Toughen Disclosure Requirements

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  • Scott Swenson, Dale Eisman

The Federal Election Commission should revamp its rules governing political fundraising and spending to give voters a fuller picture of who is spending money to influence their votes, Common Cause said in a written submission to the FEC on Tuesday.

“The Commission has not informed the public about all of the money raised and spent in federal elections; its inaction and failure to enforce campaign finance laws has reduced the ability of the citizenry to make informed choices at the ballot box;” wrote Stephen Spaulding, Common Cause’s senior policy counsel and legal director.

Spaulding asserted that the FEC has failed to update its regulations to reflect changes in campaign finance laws dictated by the Supreme Court. The omission is allowing partisan actors to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars through secretive organizations to influence our elections, he wrote.

In its controversial Citizens United decision in 2010, the high court said independent groups have a constitutional right to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections but that they cannot coordinate their activities with candidates or political parties. Near-instantaneous disclosure of the groups’ spending would protect the public against corruption, the court’s majority argued.

But Spaulding wrote that the FEC has failed to close a legal loophole that sharply limits disclosure of the money behind “electioneering communications” by the independent groups. Ignoring clear direction from Congress, the FEC has opted to require disclosure only of contributions made “for the purpose of furthering” those messages, which typically advocate for the election or defeat of particular candidates.

“Transparency in political spending is important for at least three reasons,” Spaulding’s letter adds. “First, disclosure protects voters’ right to know who is trying to influence their decision on Election Day. Voters are able to evaluate the merits of an appeal for their vote if they know who is speaking to them. Second, disclosure curbs corruption and its appearance, including the specter of undue influence over public policy. Third, disclosure is critical to the enforcement of our campaign finance laws.”

Along with increasing disclosure, the Common Cause submission argues, the FEC should tighten rules barring spending by foreign corporations on U.S. elections; the commission also should clarify rules protecting individual employees and labor groups against retaliation on the job over if they oppose an employer’s or a union’s political spending.

Spaulding’s submission comes as the commission considers a rulemaking request filed by a coalition of advocacy groups led by Public Citizen. Two FEC members, Chair Ann Ravel and Ellen Weintraub, originally filed the request, only to have it blocked by the panel’s three Republicans, who argued that commission members are not persons within the meaning of the campaign finance law.

That dispute reflects the ongoing tension on the six-member FEC, widely regarded as the federal government’s most dysfunctional agency.