House Judiciary Democrats eye campaign finance measures

FEC member points out need for more commissioners

Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., continues to champion his Democracy for All Amendment to the Constitution that would essentially undo the 2010 Citizens United v FEC decision. “The deeply rooted problem of money in politics requires a constitutional amendment,” Deutch said Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House members and political money experts debated comprehensive new campaign finance overhaul measures on Thursday, but they heard testimony from a Federal Election Commission member who suggested they might first want to address the existing campaign regulatory infrastructure. 

Federal Election Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, in testimony to a House Judiciary subcommittee, tried to draw attention to her agency’s current predicament: It’s lacked enough commissioners for a quorum for more than five months.

“While I know this is not within the House’s purview, the FEC could really use some new commissioners to restore our quorum and let us do our job,” she said during a hearing of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties. “So tell your friends.”

The agency still is processing and making public candidate and committee disclosures. But to hold meetings or take enforcement actions, the FEC needs to have at least four commissioners; it’s supposed to have six total. Right now, it’s down to three commissioners. The White House nominates members of the commission, typically in consultation with the other party, and the Senate confirms them.

Even as the FEC remains partially dysfunctional, Democratic lawmakers made their case for a much more difficult measure: a constitutional amendment that would essentially undo the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision. That landmark case paved the way for super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited sums of money but are supposed to operate independently from candidates.

[End Citizens United names first 12 Republican targets for 2020]

Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., made a pitch for his Democracy for All amendment.

“Over the past 10 years, we have seen wealthy individuals and corporations evade disclosure and slip around anti-coordination rules,” Deutch said. “The deeply rooted problem of money in politics requires a constitutional amendment.”

[A Campaign Finance-Minded Don Quixote of Congress]

Democrats also called for new disclosures, including those contained in a sweeping bill that the House passed last year, of political spending by groups, including trade associations, that don’t have to release donor names.

Although Democrats argue that super PACs and other outside groups have muffled the voices of ordinary citizens in elections, Republicans argued that liberals overstate the influence of the Citizens United decision.

Bradley Smith, a former FEC commissioner, said corporate spending in elections amounts to typically less than 5 percent, with most political money still coming from individual donors.

“That’s hardly drowning anybody out,” he said.

Smith acknowledged that many groups do not disclose who their donors are, but he said many are known to the public, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Realtors.

Still, some new groups that crop up keep their donors’ identities shielded, at least temporarily.

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a law professor at Stetson University in Florida who focuses on election and constitutional law, said new disclosure requirements are needed. “You can see the puppet dance, but you can’t see the puppeteer,” she said.

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