July 14, 2013

IMMOBILIZED BY political gridlock, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has allowed its enforcement actions to nosedive in recent years. Now outgoing commission Vice Chairman Donald F. McGahn II, a former general counsel to the National Republican Congressional Committee, could be seeking to take advantage of a temporary 3-to-2 Republican majority on the FEC to write Republican stall tactics into agency rules.

Mr. McGahn and other Republican commissioners have proposed a version of the FEC enforcement manual that would prevent the agency’s general counsel from consulting, without commission approval, publicly available information when considering an enforcement matter. It would also severely restrict information-sharing between the FEC and the Justice Department.

Commissioner Cynthia L. Bauerly, a Democrat, departed the FEC in February, leaving Democrats on the commission outnumbered. It’s not as if it had been operating smoothly prior to Ms. Bauerly’s departure. With the FEC at full strength, its debates have tended to be unproductive: Repeatedly, when agency staff have recommended enforcement in a case, the three Democratic commissioners have voted in favor of action and the three Republicans against, citing First Amendment rights. Without a majority, nothing happens, regardless of the party of the candidate under scrutiny. Fundamentally, the Republican commissioners seem not to believe in the campaign finance laws that Congress has passed and that they are bound to enforce.

The beleaguered FEC needs a fresh start. President Obama nominated Ann Ravel, head of California’s campaign finance agency, and Lee Goodman, a Republican election lawyer, in June (Mr. Goodman’s nomination was to replace Mr. McGahn), and the Senate should speedily confirm them. Then the president and the Senate should see to the replacement of the other four commissioners, all of whom are lame ducks.

Meanwhile, the commission should not be changing its rules. The proposed manual is wrong in substance — it would further stifle the agency’s efforts to enforce the law and seek out violators. And the effort is hypocritical. Mr. McGahn and his allies have defended the FEC’s 3-to-3 voting structure, saying it is intended to force consensus between the major parties on inherently political questions. The commissioners ought to be embarrassed to exploit a temporary imbalance to promote their ideological opposition to campaign finance enforcement.