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Scandal in the Making
A stalemate at the Federal Election Commission could block public financing for the fall presidential campaign.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

IMAGINE THIS scenario: It's late summer. The Democratic and Republican conventions are about to begin. The parties' nominees have decided that it would be better for the political system -- and, no doubt, easier for them -- to accept full public financing for the general election rather than scramble to raise the money on their own. But there's no way for them to get the checks, about $85 million apiece. That's because before the checks can be issued, the Federal Election Commission must certify each nominee's eligibility to receive federal funding. Four commission members are required for such certification -- and because of a congressional standoff over confirming new members, the FEC is now operating with just two members out of the six it is supposed to have. This means that, in addition to being frozen on public financing, the FEC is unable to write regulations, launch enforcement actions or issue advisory opinions.

This situation is an embarrassment waiting to mushroom into a scandal. It is outrageous to have the country going through a contested election with the agency that is supposed to oversee enforcement of the election laws incapable of functioning. The reason for the logjam is that Senate Democrats have opposed confirming the pending Republican nominee, Hans A. von Spakovsky, because of concern about his actions on voting rights while he was a Justice Department official. Republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), have refused to hold separate up-or-down votes on all four nominees for fear that Mr. von Spakovsky would lose -- and they would be outnumbered at an unavoidably political agency that is supposed to be equally divided between the two parties. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), in a letter to White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten, reiterated his promise that if Mr. von Spakovsky's nomination were to be defeated, he would "quickly review" a replacement nominee.

There's no love lost between Mr. McConnell, an ardent foe of campaign finance reform, and John McCain, the Republican Party's presumptive presidential nominee and champion of such reform. But Mr. McCain -- who has said he would accept public financing for the general election if his Democratic opponent agreed to do the same -- has more than a passing interest in ensuring a functioning FEC. Perhaps he could use his newfound influence within the party to get this problem solved.

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