FEC Nomination Impasse Stalls Disclosure of Bundling Data

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 4, 2008

The stalemate over the Federal Election Commission's nominating process, which already has crippled the agency's ability to uphold existing campaign laws, is indefinitely delaying the implementation of a new rule designed to shine more light on fundraising by lobbyists for members of Congress and presidential candidates.

Under last year's ethics and lobbying law revisions, campaign and political action committees affiliated with lawmakers should have completed their first quarter of tracking and identifying the lobbyists who raised large amounts of money by "bundling" smaller contributions.

But the new disclosure requirement cannot take effect without publication of final rules by the FEC, whose work ground to a halt late last year in a congressional showdown over the six-member commission's makeup.

Currently there are two commissioners and four vacancies, leaving the FEC unable to function because it does not have the four members required for a quorum. No one is sure when a resolution of the dispute will allow the disclosure rule to take effect.

"We are unable to issue regulations on any topic. Because of the way the statute is written . . . this does mean that no lobbyist bundling reporting will be required in July," David M. Mason, one of the two commissioners, said. "The effective date will continue to recede into the future until the commission regains a quorum."

Bundling allows lobbyists to increase their influence with politicians by collecting campaign checks from clients and lumping them with their own contributions. Under current rules, the name of the bundler, who is often a lobbyist, is not revealed.

Congressional watchdogs are stunned that the FEC standoff continues. Because of the impasse, questions remain about whether Republican Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign properly opted out of the public financing system for the primary campaign, leaving his fundraising operation in legal limbo.

And while the FEC staff can start work on investigations, for example, into the alleged embezzlement of possibly as much as $1 million from the National Republican Congressional Committee, no formal steps can be taken in such investigations.

"This is an absurd situation to be in. If another country was doing this, we'd call them a banana republic," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, one of the leading watchdogs.

The delay on the bundling provision is the latest collateral damage. With the FEC originally scheduled to have finalized its new disclosure rule last month, mid-July finance reports would have revealed, for the first time, the lobbyists who raised at least $15,000 for presidential and congressional candidates and PACs affiliated with members of Congress.

The collapse of bundling disclosure is particularly awkward for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who was the main backer of that provision. On the presidential campaign trail he regularly touts his work on the campaign law revisions as his greatest legislative achievement, and last year, in a joint statement with Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), predicted that the bundling disclosure requirement would "go farther than any other provision in the lobbying reform bill to shine a spotlight on the dangerous connection between money and legislation."

But Obama also is leading Democratic objections to the FEC nomination of a controversial former Justice Department lawyer, Hans A. von Spakovsky, whom Democrats accuse of exerting political influence over voter fraud and election law decisions. A recent inspector general's report cleared von Spakovsky and other Justice officials of censoring a bipartisan commission's examination of intimidation of minority voters, but Democrats remain steadfastly opposed to his FEC nomination.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) is willing to hold separate votes on von Spakovsky -- who Democrats believe would lose -- and the three other nominees. But Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has refused to agree, saying that traditionally the bipartisan commission's nominees have been selected as a bloc, thus avoiding giving the two parties the power to reject opposition nominees. Three members are Republican, three Democratic.

Since New Year's Day, after the expiration of the terms of the other commissioners, Mason and Ellen L. Weintraub have been the only members of the FEC.

Aides to both Reid and McConnell indicated this week that there are no signs of an imminent breakthrough. Reid has asked President Bush to withdraw von Spakovsky's name and submit a new nominee.

"We may not see any bundling information for the entire election year of 2008," Wertheimer said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company