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Federal Election Commission: The Campaign Finance Justice League

Introduction

Imagine this: a presidential candidate earns hundreds of thousands of dollars from individual donors across the United States for their campaign. The candidate then decides to use this money to pay for a vacation home overseas. This is clearly not how donors intended their money to be spent, but how can the candidate be held accountable for their actions? 

Explanation

Every election year, millions and sometimes billions of dollars are raised and spent on campaigns for the House of Representatives, Senate, presidency, and vice presidency in the United States. There are many rules governing how to raise and spend this campaign money, known as campaign finance laws. To ensure that these laws are followed, Congress created the Federal Election Commission.

The FEC

The Federal Election Commission, or FEC, is an independent regulatory agency in charge of administering and enforcing federal campaign finance laws for congressional and executive campaigns. The FEC was created by Congress through amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act in 1974 in response to serious reports of misconduct in the 1972 presidential campaign, also known as the Watergate scandal.

How It Works

The FEC is led by six commissioners who are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Since it is intended to be a nonpartisan group, only three members may belong to the same political party. For the Commission to take action, a simple majority of at least four votes is required. Commissioners serve six-year terms, with two seats up for appointment every two years. The Chair of the FEC changes every year, and no member may serve as Chair more than once per term. 

The FEC’s main job is to enforce rules and limitations on campaign contributions and expenditures, as well as investigate and prosecute violations. The Commission also administers the reporting system that campaigns must use to disclose financial information and makes this information available in a public database. Finally, the FEC also administers the public funding programs for presidential candidates.

Although the FEC can play an important role in ensuring that campaigns are run fairly, critics question its effectiveness. It can be very difficult for commissioners to reach the consensus necessary to take action, and the process moves so slowly that violators of campaign finance laws are rarely punished until after the election. In addition, empty seats are often left open for long periods of time, and the FEC needs at least four sitting members in order to act.

So What?

When no one party is given an unlawful financial advantage over another, candidates who don’t have as much money can more easily run competitive campaigns. This makes our democracy better able to represent the interests of its citizens, instead of special interests and wealthier individuals. The FEC exists to make sure that important campaign finance laws are followed. The better it does its job, the better the system works for everyone.

Think Further

  1. Are campaign finance laws necessary for a representative democracy? Why or why not? 
  2. Should the FEC be reformed to make it easier to take action? If so, what reforms would you suggest?
  3. Is it fair for the president to appoint FEC commissioners? How else might they be chosen?

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Learn More

  1. “Leadership and Structure.” Federal Election Commission. https://www.fec.gov/about/leadership-and-structure/.
  2. Sheppard, Maurice C. The Federal Election Commission: Policy, Politics, and Administration. Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group Inc, 2007.
  3. “Federal Election Commission.” Ballotpedia. https://ballotpedia.org/Federal_Election_Commission.