Leading the Federal Election Commission: An interview with Chairman Caroline Hunter
By Tom Fox,
Caroline Hunter is chair of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), an independent regulatory agency that administers and enforces the law which governs the financing of federal elections. Hunter was appointed to the commission by President George W. Bush in 2008. She previously served as the vice-chair of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and as deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison. Hunter spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. He also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.
Could you walk us through the role of the Federal Election Commission?
The FEC offers public disclosure of certain campaign finance activity. A campaign typically files with us monthly, and they file everything: receipts, disbursements, and every dime they’ve raised or spent. This information is almost immediately posted on our Web site for the public to see. There are also rules for how campaigns and some other groups raise and spend money. The FEC enforces and encourages voluntary compliance with those rules.
These federal campaign laws can be burdensome, complex and difficult to explain. To that end, we have seminars, webinars and information posted on our Web site, and people available to answer questions the public may have about complying with the law. We also have Reports Analysis Division analysts, who review campaign-finance reports and work directly with political campaigns to answer their questions and help them comply.
What has been on the docket for the FEC during this election season?
We’ve concentrated our efforts to ensure that campaign-finance disclosure reports are posted on our Web site in a timely fashion. There also has been an increase in requests for advisory opinions, which are commission responses to questions regarding the application of federal campaign finance laws. Several requests were related to the use of text messaging for political contributions, which the FEC approved earlier this year.
How does the political composition of the commission pose challenges for formulating policy?
The commission has six members, and no more than three can be members of the same political party. It takes four concurring votes to approve any action. That’s very different than most federal entities in town, and it’s a lot more difficult to do things. We’ve had a relatively small number of cases that have resulted in a three-three split. Usually you’ll see a split when the law is vague, given that issues pertaining to the First Amendment are in play. We have made a lot of procedural reforms to the agency that not only affects the public, but also the internal operations of the commission. We tried to change processes to make the agency more transparent, and these issues were debated in public and voted on in public. I think the agency is improved a lot by these reforms.
As chair, what’s your role in navigating contentious issues?
The chair has the ability to set the agenda and is involved with day-to-day operations. Essentially, all six commissioners have the same amount of authority. What I try to do is bring people together to reach compromise. I do believe there are times when compromise is not possible, and sometimes it’s not the right way to go. Compromising something as fundamental as regulating citizens’ political rights is pretty sensitive. The text-messaging issue is an example of when the commission had different perspectives on an issue, but worked toward a unanimous vote. Of course, the cases when we tend to get the most attention involve deadlock over sensitive issues.
What do you wish you would have known before becoming chair?
One assumption that was affirmed was that you can’t just wave your gavel and make things happen. This is in part because of the composition of the commission, but also because of federal civil-service laws and the fact that we have a mostly unionized work force. The FEC has 340 employees, and about 60 percent are in a bargaining unit and 40 percent of them pay dues. Many lawyers — as long as they’re not in management — are members of the bargaining unit and may bargain over most workplace changes. So that is a consideration when you try to improve things in an agency. Not only do you have to contend with federal civil-service laws, which govern just about everything, you also have to think about the union issues.
Who are your role models, and what lessons have you taken away from their example?
My role models are Mary Matalin and Rhonda Keenum, both of whom I worked for and count as my mentors and friends. Mary’s a political commentator and analyst, and Rhonda was the director of the Office of Public Liaison at the White House during the George W. Bush administration. Mary is brilliant and always prepared. She doesn’t do anything or go anywhere without knowing the subject inside out. I think the most important thing I learned from Mary is she listens to everybody. No matter who the person is, she listens and values their insight. In respect to Rhonda, she could run anything. She’s incredibly smart, efficient, and she can manage a huge operation with lots of details very effortlessly. People who work for her are inspired by her example.
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