They are doing exactly what they were designed to do.
The FEC (Federal Election Commission) is basically a corpse — lifeless, ineffective and useless — and that is exactly how politicians and those who finance their campaigns like it.
This power dynamic was made clear just two years after the agency’s creation, when its budget was slashed 25% by Congress in retaliation for doing the job it was created to do. Since then, politicized appointments have finished the job of effectively neutering the agency.
Even when penalties are assessed, they usually amount to little more than a slap on the wrist, applied years after a campaign is over and the public’s attention has long since shifted.
Apparently, as far as Congress is concerned, policing is only for thee, not for me.
When was the last time you heard of the FEC enforcing much of anything? With all the money flying around; all the new technology available to be used (and exploited); all the claims and counter-claims of election shenanigans…where are the cops on the beat, ensuring that existing rules (such as they are) are being followed?
Even still, both parties have been crying foul for years, and never as loudly as in 2020. More oversight is obviously needed, even if neither party wants to admit it.
Taking control of elections from self-interested politicians is a reform that is long past due.
First, decouple the agency’s budget from Congressional control. That way, it can’t be starved of funds (a huge conflict of interest) any time it gets too lively.
Instead, have both the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) and GAO (Government Accountability Office) provide an initial budget estimate for an agency that is fully staffed and has the resources necessary to do the job for which it is tasked. Take the higher of the two amounts and that is what Congress would need to set aside in initial funding, adjusting for inflation in subsequent years.
Whatever the price tag, it pales in comparison to the cost of an electoral system constantly at risk of being thrown into chaos, and otherwise rigged to favor big donors.
Next, we need independent and qualified commissioners, not political hacks appointed to gum up the works. Have the OPM (Office of Personnel Management) compile a list of the 25 most qualified applicants to serve as commissioners. From that list, the President and majority & minority leaders in both houses of Congress would each select one commissioner. Each selectee would then be assigned to head one of the five departments of a remade FEC. Those five departments would be:
~ Campaign Finance
~ Public Outreach
Elections would expand the agency’s role beyond campaign finance into ensuring that any federal mandates are being carried out by the states implementing them. They would also help detect & prevent any fraud committed by election officials, elected or otherwise.
Campaign Finance would focus on the role of money in politics, enforcing existing rules in a much more timely and relevant manner. A remade FEC could also take over oversight of PACs, corporations, unions, non-profits and other independent groups spending huge amounts of money in our elections, ensuring that they too are following the rules.
(The IRS, which currently handles this task, has neither the resources nor political will to regulate independent expenditures, which seemingly double every election cycle with no end in sight. This has led to a serious erosion of public trust and confidence in our electoral system.)
Lobbying/Ethics would replace the House/Senate committees which currently oversee the conduct of lobbyists and the ethical conduct of their members. This current arrangement is a classic case of foxes guarding the henhouse, and more often than not, investigations are politically motivated rather than genuine efforts to create an ethical and transparent environment in Congress. This needs to change.
Technology would work with other departments to ensure that rules related to electronic voting machines, the internet and other non-analog technologies are being properly enforced. They would also help determine what practices and systems are in need of update and/or replacement.
Public Outreach would educate citizens on current election law and receive input about ways to improve our electoral system.
All departments except Public Outreach would be armed with an investigative unit.
Penalties should be increased across the board, with criminal matters turned over to the Department of Justice for prosecution.
Commissioners would serve five-year terms with one commissioner replaced annually. Each of the five selecting offices (President, majority/minority leader) would rotate in selecting the new commissioner from a list furnished by the OPM of the five most qualified candidates.
In addition to the regular duties of their individual departments, commissioners would also be empowered to propose changes to laws governing elections (including election technology), campaign finance, lobbying and ethics.
At least once every year, the five commissioners would meet to discuss any proposed changes to existing law, with a 4–1 vote required for approval. Any accepted would then be forwarded to Congress, which then approve or disapprove via a straight up/down vote in both chambers. Any approved would be forwarded to the President for his signature (or veto).
If disapproved, Congress could advise the agency what provisions members found objectionable. The commissioners could resubmit the following year, using the suggested changes (or not) at their discretion.
This public process would help prevent politicians from undoing election laws they find inconvenient. It would also allow voters to hold accountable lawmakers voting against popular changes, potentially increasing public engagement with our electoral system (and government in general).
Done properly, this would have an enormous impact in ensuring everyone is playing by the rules.
It could also make future (necessary) reforms more easily achievable, while helping to stem abuses that currently cause far too many people to lose faith in America and its institutions.
There is no silver bullet which will fix all of our problems, but putting genuine referees on the field during our elections is an excellent (and logical) place to begin the process of fixing a foundering system, and restoring the promise of a government by, of, and for the people.