The court found in its Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision that the First Amendment allows unfettered spending on campaigns by corporations, nonprofits and unions. Shortly after the January 2010 ruling, the commission said it would no longer enforce regulations that the court had struck down directly.
But the effort to write new regulations has been halted by the partisan feud over how much interest groups must disclose about their financial backers.
Democratic commissioners are demanding that the FEC consider rules that would require interest groups to reveal who is underwriting campaign advertising. They point to the court ruling, saying eight of the nine justices favored public access to information about donors.
“We are not currently getting the kind of disclosure that the statute requires,” said Ellen Weintraub, one of the Democratic commissioners. “The trend is pretty clear: We’re seeing more spending, less disclosure.”
Republicans on the commission, however, are objecting, saying that only Congress has the authority to require disclosure, through legislation. At a meeting in January, the commission was unable to agree even on a notice to solicit public comment about which rules should be changed.
The stalemate has been worsened by the political rhetoric surrounding corporate spending on elections. Obama and congressional Democrats criticized the court’s decision and the practice among some interest groups of shielding their donors.
The disagreement over disclosure mirrors other FEC divisions over how vigorously to enforce campaign spending laws generally. The commissioners have faced partisan divides much more often than their predecessors did. According to the watchdog group Public Citizen, the FEC has deadlocked on one in seven cases during the past 21
2 years, compared with one in 50 cases in the five years prior.
The panel gridlocked last month, for example, when it could not agree on whether a negative message from the campaign of Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) about his opponent in the midterm election violated laws by not clearly identifying that he had paid for it.
The public “has a right to know who is responsible for such advertisements,” the three Democratic commissioners wrote, explaining their vote that the mailer was illegal.
Donald F. McGahn, a Republican commissioner, said he voted to dismiss the case because he had no problem finding the text identifying who paid for the mailer.