Editorial: Nation needs campaign finance watchdog on the job

A resignation leaves the Federal Election Commission unable to do its work ahead of the 2020 race.

By The Herald Editorial Board

If you happened to be running for federal office and had a notion to fudge the numbers on the campaign contributions you’re expected to report and the ads you buy, now might be a good time to do so.

A recent resignation from the Federal Election Commission, which reduced its independent oversight panel to three members instead of the mandated six members — eliminating its quorum and its authority for many of its responsibilities — means the campaign finance watchdog for federal elections is not on the job.

And it won’t be until President Trump nominates candidates to fill at least one of three empty positions and the Senate confirms those nominations, which puts the question of when in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. McConnell, who has one Trump nomination pending before the Senate, has shown little interest in fair elections. Thus far he has refused to take up legislation adopted in the House that would improve election security, following meddling during the 2016 election by Russian-backed hackers, as was confirmed by the Mueller report.

With little urgency shown by Trump or McConnell, this could be a long wait: weeks, months or even well into — if not past — the 2020 election season, which most readers will recall, will determine the next president and control of the Senate and House.

A look at what the FEC is responsible for shows what the watchdog won’t be barking at until it again has at least four members.

While the FEC staff remains on the job, gathering campaign finance records and posting them to the internet for public review, the commission can’t fulfill its key responsibilities for ruling on allegations of campaign finance law violations and determining fines. Nor can it adopt rules related to election campaigns, conduct and approve audits of candidates’ financial filings or even conduct meetings.

The conduct of candidates for federal office is now on an honor system. That works when buying ears of corn from a farm stand but is open to abuse — and simple unintentional error — when reporting donations made to campaigns and their spending.

There is a pending nomination before the Senate; prior to the most recent resignation, Trump had nominated one Republican to the panel. Congress, in creating the FEC in 1974, intended it to be filled by three Republicans and three Democrats. In the past, presidents typically nominated candidates in tandem — one Republican and one Democrat — to preserve the commission’s balance.

That “balance” has led some to criticize the FEC as feckless, in particular when it deadlocks along party lines on investigations before it. But it has managed to agree on some cases, reports a commentary in The Hill, including a $375,000 fine against the 2008 Obama campaign. And its audits of financial records at least serve notice to campaigns that they are being watched by the FEC and the public; or were being watched.

Reforms to the FEC that could limit such stalemates, such as an odd-number board or nominations of less-partisan candidates, are worth Congress’ consideration. Washington state’s Public Disclosure Commission, the state-level equivalent of the FEC, provides a good model for such reforms, although it, like the FEC, suffers from inadequate funding and a lack of full support among those on which it keeps watch.

But more immediately, the FEC needs its quorum restored, if not its full membership of six commissioners.

Voter turnout nationwide for presidential elections has fluctuated in recent years, around 55 percent in 2004, 2012 and 2016 and 58 percent in 2008. Compared with the turnout seen in other nations, those aren’t stunning numbers. In 2020, those numbers won’t be helped if a lack of trust is allowed to fester among voters regarding the donations made to campaigns and how those funds are spent.

As the nation readies for one of the most consequential elections in its history, it needs a fully functioning Federal Election Commission. And there’s no good reason to delay action to put the watchdog back on duty.

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