Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and 11 other groups on Tuesday blasted the Obama administration's "tepid response" to a petition calling for new commissioners for the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
"Our organizations read with great disappointment the White House’s lackluster response to our petition calling on you to nominate new commissioners to the Federal Election Commission," they wrote in a letter to President Barack Obama.
During his 2008 campaign, the President promised to appoint new commissioners to the FEC -- the independent agency that enforces campaign finance laws. But five of the six current commissioners continue to serve despite expired terms. Three Republican commissioners who refuse to enforce campaign finance laws have rendered the six-member commission useless, according to the advocacy group Public Citizen.
The White House has promised to issue a response for petitions on its "We the People" website that are signed by at least 25,000 people within 30 days. CREW's petition reached its goal in February, but had to wait over four months for an answer.
"While the Administration doesn't comment publicly about the President's personnel decisions before he makes them, the Obama Administration is committed to nominating highly qualified individuals to lead the FEC," Tonya Robinson, a special assistant to the President, wrote in the response. "The agency, and the system of open and fair elections that the FEC is charged with protecting, deserve no less."
Obama nominated John J. Sullivan to the FEC in 2009. But after waiting more than 15 months to be confirmed by the Senate, Sullivan withdrew his nomination. The President has not nominated anyone to the FEC since then.
From 2003 to 2007, the FEC deadlocked on a total of 39 votes on enforcement actions. But from 2008 to 2010, the number of deadlocked votes jumped up to 70, even though the total number of votes was drastically less. Those deadlocked votes led to dismissed complaints. Historically, the agency deadlocked on fewer than 2 percent of its enforcement actions.
"In effect, campaign laws were simply not enforced [in 2008]," former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) recently lamented in the Stanford Law Review. "Since 2008, despite having a full roster of commissioners, the FEC still remains ineffective, as even Democratic violators go unpunished as conservative commissioners remain unwilling, philosophically, to enforce any campaign finance law."
The FEC is also pursuing far fewer audits of the financial activity of candidates and committees than it had done so previously. The number of audits dropped from 242 between 2004 to 2007 to just 84 between 2008 to 2010.
"While reform opponents in Congress certainly are to blame for their stubborn refusal to pass tougher disclosure laws, the national scandal at the FEC is your responsibility to address," the coalition of groups told the President. "The agency will not change until you exercise your executive branch authority to nominate new commissioners."
"Nominating commissioners based on merit and qualifications may well create conflict with congressional leaders accustomed to choosing commissioners themselves," they added. "Given the completely dysfunctional state of the FEC and the enormous damage that has been done to our campaign finance laws, however, this is a fight worth having."