Waiting for Watergate: The Long Road to FEC Reform – Note by Lauren Eber

From Volume 79, Number 5 (July 2006)

In a February 2005 press conference about his proposed 527 Reform Act of 2005, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) vehemently expressed his views about the Federal Election Commission: “the Federal Election Commission has failed to do their duty….This is a corrupt organization. And I don’t use the word lightly. We need to reform the Federal Election Commission.” This was not McCain’s first public contribution to the litany of derogatory rhetoric about the FEC, which has been called the “Failure to Enforce Commission,” a “toothless tiger,” “FEC-less,” a “muzzled watchdog,” and “The Little Agency That Can’t.” McCain has previously called the FEC a “rogue agency” and “weak and failing.” But in a comment that is more than just name-calling, McCain gets to the heart of what is really wrong with the FEC: it is “structured by Congress to be slow and ineffective.”

Legislators have a vested interest in keeping the FEC weak and inefficient because they are among the potential targets of enforcement actions. Because reelection is the “dominant goal” of most legislators, they are unlikely to enact legislation contrary to their self-interest unless they perceive that failure to do so would cost them votes. Consequently, a substantial increase in the FEC’s power is unlikely until legislators feel pressure from the public to strengthen campaign finance enforcement. But FEC reform is currently too low on the public’s political agenda to capture politicians’ attention. Not even a major political scandal, like lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s admission that he bribed Republican members of Congress, was enough to alter the public’s apathy toward campaign finance. In fact, a January 2006 Pew Research Center survey found that “[t]he public has been hardly stirred” by the scandal and that “Jack Abramoff’s admission that he bribed members of Congress has sparked little interest.”



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