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'Campaign Finance Scandal' At FEC: Reform Groups Call For Obama To Step Up

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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama has been criticized before for failing to live up to promises made in his 2008 campaign on such issues as pharmaceutical prices, climate change and medical marijuana. On Thursday, campaign finance reform advocates jumped in with another unfulfilled promise.

Six organizations that support campaign finance regulation -- Democracy 21, Campaign Legal Center, Public Citizen, Common Cause, League of Women Voters and U.S. PIRG -- held a Capitol Hill press conference to urge the president to appoint new commissioners to fill the seats of five Federal Election Commission members whose terms have expired. The commissioners continue to serve until new appointees are confirmed by the Senate, even when their terms have officially expired. The groups also sent a letter to the White House.

"The FEC is itself a national campaign finance scandal," said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer at the press conference. "The FEC is a dysfunctional agency that refuses to enforce the campaign finance laws. We call on Obama to nominate new commissioners."

In recent years, the six-member commission has grown increasingly polarized and gridlocked, according to data provided by the reform groups. At least four commissioners must vote to approve a new rule. If the FEC splits 3-3, no rule is adopted. Tied votes accounted for nearly 30 percent of all rule-setting votes in 2010, up from 11 percent in 2003.

Tied votes have prevented the commission from adopting rules to govern spending and disclosure by independent groups in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling Citizens United v. FEC, which opened the door to unlimited corporate and union spending on independent election activities. The FEC has also enacted regulations that opened holes in disclosure laws. In a 2007 advisory opinion, the commission allowed independent groups running election ads to hide the identity of the donors behind the ads.

The 2007 ruling led undisclosed campaign spending by independent groups to jump from 1 percent of outside-group spending in 2006 to 25 percent in 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The failure of the FEC to issue rules on disclosure by independent groups following the Citizens United decision led that number to jump to 43 percent of all independent spending.

"The Supreme Court has made our campaign finance system bad, but the FEC has made it much, much worse," said Paul S. Ryan, counsel for the Campaign Legal Center. "The president should follow through on his promise and appoint FEC commissioners who will enforce the law."

Wertheimer pointed out that candidate Obama stated in 2007, "As president, I will appoint nominees to the commission who are committed to enforcing our nation's election laws."

"President Obama has failed to meet his public commitment," Wertheimer said. "[He] can no longer sit on the sidelines as the FEC scandal continues to grow."

Craig Holman, legislative representative for Public Citizen, explained that the current FEC gridlock stems from the opposition to campaign finance laws by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The FEC is a bipartisan commission with three Democratic and three Republican members. McConnell, as the Republican leader in the Senate, is accorded the privilege of picking the Republican commissioners.

"[McConnell] has figured out that the way he can [block campaign finance law] is by appointing people to the FEC who will not enforce the law," Holman said.

Holman further argued that the president should end the deference given to the leaders of the Senate in appointing commissioners and should himself name all five nominees for the seats held by commissioners serving expired terms. "I'd ask the president to fix this and go back to the constitutional process," Holman said.

Even if Obama were to submit five nominees to the Senate for confirmation, McConnell could still stand in the way if those appointments were not to his liking.

"That's a battle that has to be fought out. You just can't sit here and let a national scandal grow and grow and grow," Wertheimer said. "The American people should know that the Senate and Sen. McConnell will not let this national scandal be solved."

The Thursday press conference was held in conjunction with an FEC oversight hearing by the House Committee on House Administration. The groups protested the committee's failure to call for testimony from anyone other than the FEC commissioners themselves.

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