Barack Obama pledged as a presidential candidate to strengthen the Federal Election Commission and nominate members “committed to enforcing our nation’s election laws.”
Since taking office, he hasn’t pushed for achievement of either goal.
The president has taken no action to reshape the FEC, even as five of the six commissioners are serving on expired terms. In the meantime, the FEC deadlocked along party lines on whether to consider requiring nonprofits spending millions of dollars on political ads to disclose their donors.
“President Obama should be held responsible for his failure to at the very least nominate replacement commissioners,” said Paul Ryan, a lawyer for the Campaign Legal Center, which seeks stronger oversight of political giving. “Notwithstanding his promises to the contrary on the campaign trail, cleaning up Washington has not been a high priority for President Obama.”
The president’s inaction on an issue he used to distinguish himself during his Senate career and on the presidential campaign trail is among those that may depress enthusiasm among the Democratic Party’s activists.
Almost half of the record $745 million he raised in 2008 came from contributions of $200 or less, and some of those donors were motivated by his call to overhaul the campaign-finance system, said Justin Ruben, executive director of Moveon.org, an online organization with 7 million members who worked to elect Obama.
“There’s no question that part of the change people voted for was to change a system that is dominated by big money and shut out their voices,” Ruben said. “The political process is broken. One thing we can do is campaign-finance reform.”
The president’s re-election campaign now faces a new foe: a crop of independent Republican committees formed in 2010, financed by secret donors and bent on defeating him. Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, an organization formed with guidance from Karl Rove, top political adviser to President George W. Bush, and its affiliate American Crossroads have set a goal of raising more than $240 million to beat Obama and Democratic House and Senate candidates.
Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, said FEC replacements are coming.
“We are not going to publically speculate on future personnel decisions, but the president intends to nominate well-qualified candidates, and we will continue to support strong enforcement of our campaign finance laws,” he said.
One FEC Nominee
In May 2009, Obama nominated one member to the FEC, labor lawyer John Sullivan, whose name was withdrawn 15 months later with no Senate action after he was opposed by Arizona Republican Senator John McCain and then-Wisconsin Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, two supporters of campaign finance laws who urged the president to submit a full slate of replacements.
Obama has criticized the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which removed limits on corporate and union spending on politics, and endorsed legislation in Congress that would require nonprofits such as Crossroads and Priorities USA, an organization founded by former Obama aides, to reveal the names of their contributors.
“The president has legitimately complained about the Supreme Court and legitimately complained about Congress failing to pass the Disclose Act,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “But the president does have a role and he is ignoring his own part.”
Petitioning White House
Sloan’s group joined 10 others in gathering more than 27,000 signatures and petitioning the White House through its website to nominate new FEC commissioners. Representatives Peter Welch of Vermont, Ted Deutch of Florida and 29 other House Democrats made a similar request to Obama to appoint replacements and tell “those seeking to exploit an uncertain campaign landscape that the cop is back on the beat and that federal election laws will be fully enforced.”
As a senator, Obama co-sponsored legislation to increase public financing for presidential campaigns and extend it to congressional candidates, and to impose new restrictions on lobbyists.
While running for president, Obama pledged to strengthen the FEC in a November 2007 written response to the Chicago-based Midwest Democracy Network.
“I believe that the FEC needs to be strengthened and that individuals named to the commission should have a demonstrated record of fair administration of the law and an ability to overcome partisan biases,” Obama wrote. “As president, I will appoint nominees to the commission who are committed to enforcing our nation’s election laws.”
In 2008, he eschewed donations from political action committees and registered lobbyists. Obama imposed those rules on his 2012 re-election campaign as well, and he’s the only presidential candidate this year to identify his top fundraisers.
As president, he issued an executive order preventing former aides from lobbying the White House after leaving office.
Advocates of tougher regulations of political money support those moves, and Obama’s campaign highlights them in his re-election pitches. Still, they see a lost opportunity.
“Since the Republicans are so adamant against disclosure, they are going to deadlock and nothing’s going to happen,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist on campaign finance issues for Washington-based Public Citizen, which supports stronger regulations. Had Obama “fixed the FEC earlier, I think we would not be in this dark hole when it comes to money and politics.”
Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, said Obama didn’t seem willing to confront Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, an opponent of campaign finance regulations who unsuccessfully sued to overturn the 2002 law sponsored by McCain and Feingold. Traditionally, political party leaders suggest commissioners to the president.
“I just never got the sense that they were willing to go down that road,” Manley said. “McConnell is dead set against the whole idea behind the commission.”
Even if McConnell makes suggestions, Obama could choose different Republicans, the way Republican President Ronald Reagan once rejected a Democratic candidate and told party leaders to pick someone else, former FEC general counsel Larry Noble said.
“Nothing would stop a president from doing that again,” Noble said. “The problem is they don’t want to spend the political capital to do that.”
If Senate Republicans block Obama’s nominees, the president should say “he will take matters in his own hands and recess-appoint people who will enforce the law,” Ruben said.
“People want a president with chutzpah,” he said, citing a Yiddish term meaning nerve. “There’s no political downside to being strong on this issue.”