The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is responsible for enforcing federal campaign finance law. Congress designed the Commission to ensure partisan fairness. But Congress also understood that the FEC’s bipartisan structure could lead to a stalemate and prevent enforcement of campaign finance laws when commissioners are unable to agree on what action to take. Indeed, over the past two decades, partisan gridlock at the FEC has nearly brought enforcement to a halt. But Congress anticipated this problem and created a solution to ensure that the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) did not become a dead letter. When the FEC fails to act on a complaint alleging that the law has been violated, the FECA allows the complainant to challenge that inaction in federal court. If the plaintiff succeeds in proving that the FEC unlawfully delayed the proceedings, the court can order the Commission to act. If the FEC fails to do so, the FECA gives the private plaintiff the right to directly sue the violator in federal court to enforce the law.
In recent years, groups like the Campaign Legal Center (CLC) have increasingly turned to FECA’s direct sue provision as a way to ensure that federal campaign finance laws are enforced, despite agency inaction. As a result, there are a growing number of cases in federal courts where pro-democracy groups like the CLC have intervened to enforce the FECA following the malfunctioning of the FEC.
Federal law requires campaigns and outside organizations to be transparent about who is spending money to influence federal elections. FECA also imposes contribution limits to protect against the corrupting influence of money in politics. To ensure that these contribution limits are enforced, FECA prohibits almost all coordination between candidates’ campaigns and supposedly independent outside groups. Over the past two years, Campaign Legal Center and its 501(c)(4) affiliate Campaign Legal Center Action have won a number of judgments, on behalf of the CLC and other affected organizations, against the FEC for its failure to respond to administrative complaints. alleging violations of the FECA. As a result, CLC and CLC Action now represent several plaintiffs – including CLC itself – who have exercised their right under FECA to directly sue violators in federal court.
What’s at stake
Federal campaign finance laws protect the right of every American to participate in the political process by requiring transparency about who pays for campaign ads and other political expenses, so voters can properly evaluate different speakers and messages and vote safely. knowingly. Our campaign finance laws are also meant to limit real and apparent corruption by restricting the amounts and sources of money given directly to support candidates and their campaigns. But these laws are meaningless if they are not enforced.
Enforcement of campaign finance laws is important not only to compel individual political actors to comply with them, but also to send a clear message to others that there are consequences for breaking the rules. Too often, the exact opposite has happened. Organizations that wish to conceal the sources of their political spending or coordinate their ostensibly “independent” spending with the candidates they support know that the blocked Commission is unlikely to enforce the law. This means that these actors, and others who imitate their activities, face little or no consequences for breaking the law, and therefore have no reason to comply. These increasingly flagrant violations of federal campaign finance laws are undermining trust in the democratic process, as the public also learns to view the rules as meaningless.
Voters have a right to a fair, transparent and accountable political process and to a government agency that enforces our campaign finance laws. In the absence of action by the FEC, groups like the CLC are stepping in to ensure that federal campaign finance law is enforced.