During his 2010 State of the Union address, Obama challenged the Citizens United decision, saying it “reversed a century of law that, I believe, will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections.” The comment prompted Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., sitting in the audience, to mutter, “Not true.”
The president also appointed a law school classmate, Norman Eisen, as special counsel for ethics and government reform, and posted visitor logs, daily public schedules, staff salaries and ethics waivers on the White House Web site.
But the ethics position has been vacant since 2010, when Obama named Eisen ambassador to the Czech Republic. White House aides say the job has been divvied up among other administration officials.
Several election law experts say it’s understandable that Obama has not pushed harder to overhaul the nation’s campaign finance system, given the state of political polarization and the Citizens United decision.
Columbia Law School professor Nathaniel Persily said it was hard to envision how Obama could persuade congressional Republicans to adopt any changes to the system because it “affects congressmen’s jobs, and it’s something they think they’re experts at.”
“Reforms are seen as a zero-sum game between the parties,” Persily said. “Any time or effort spent on campaign finance is time and effort not being spent on the budget, North Korea and/or immigration, all of which have a better chance of having a legislative solution.”
Voters are not clamoring for reform, either: The issue ranked 21st out of 22 issues in a January Pew Research Center poll when respondents were asked to name their top priorities for Obama and Congress, edging out global warming. Just 24 percent of respondents in a Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll last year thought more outside spending was having a negative impact on the election.
At the FEC, most commissioners are appointed by the Senate to six-year terms but are allowed to continue serving past that time until a replacement is found. Obama has put forward only one FEC nominee, labor lawyer John J. Sullivan, whose name was withdrawn after he came under fire for positions he took while representing unions.
Regardless of the appointment issues, the FEC has been racked by partisan dysfunction for years, frequently deadlocking 3 to 3 on major rulings.
The vacancy issue came up at last Thursday’s regular FEC meeting, which featured nearly two dozen schoolchildren in the audience for Take Our Children to Work Day. The scene prompted FEC Chairman Ellen Weintraub — whose term officially expired in 2009 — to pose a question.
“Anyone want to be commissioner?” she asked. A few kids raised their hands. “Write the president and tell him you want to be a commissioner, because we need somebody.”
Capital Insight survey research analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.
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