By Dwight L. Morris
The Federal Election Commission was designed to fail. With six commissioners three Democrats and three Republicans and no mechanism for breaking tie votes, truly controversial cases routinely go unresolved. The agency has no power to levy fines; instead it must negotiate penalties with those who violate election laws or hope that the Justice Department can be convinced to prosecute the offenders. It is so understaffed that it can thoroughly audit no more than a dozen campaigns in any given election. It is hard to imagine a more ineffectual federal agency.
Nevertheless, this toothless tiger may well have seen its best days. Marked by an explosion of totally unregulated expenditures, the 1996 campaign rendered the FEC virtually irrelevant.
The AFL-CIO v. The GOP
In fact, the AFL-CIO spent more than $35 million to influence the outcome of the 1996 presidential, Senate and House contests. The AFL-CIO pumped more than $20 million into television commercials that praised the Clinton budget plans and warned voters in selected districts that their congressional representative who just happened to be Republican wanted to slash Medicare benefits, cut spending on education and student loans, and provide big business and wealthy individuals with a big tax cut.
Since none of the ads ever expressly urged people to vote for or against any particular candidate, none of the AFL-CIOís spending will ever have to be reported to the FEC as election activity. Nor will the union ever have to document the millions of dollars it spent to create and mail roughly 100 glossy brochures to its members across the country. Nor will the union ever have to document the cost of the countless mall-intercept interviews and focus groups it took to hone the messages delivered in those mailings and advertisements.
The AFL-CIOís unreported outlays amount to roughly twice the $18,830,357 reported to the FEC by all organizations that undertook independent campaigns during 1996 (excluding independent outlays by Republican and Democratic party committees). And the unionís activities represent only a portion of the political activity that will forever go unrecorded.
EMILY's List and Blue-Collar Women
Americans for Limited Terms
Christian Coalition Voter Guides
"Official" Independent Campaigners
Next on the list of organizations officially running independent campaigns was the Communication Workers of America (CWA), which spent $1,226,454 to support 75 candidates. The CWA poured $1,218,104 into leaflets and brochures supporting Bill Clinton, which were mailed to the unionís membership. The other 74 independent efforts consisted of newspaper ads, none of which cost more than $142.
The League of Conservation Voters spent a total of $1,155,606 on 11 campaigns dedicated to defeating Republicans, including $227,527 against Senate nominee Gordon Smith in Oregon. The prolonged anti-Smith effort helped Rep. Ron Wyden beat Smith in the January special election, but could not keep the Republican from winning a Senate seat ten months later, when he narrowly edged Democrat Tom Bruggere to take the vacant seat created by the retirement of Mark O. Hatfield.
In all, 23 candidates benefited from officially reported independent campaigns costing $100,000 or more, while another 127 received independent support totaling at least $10,000. One hundred forty-one independent campaigns costing $100 or less were reported to the FEC.
Any campaign finance reform that fails to mandate full disclosure of issue-advocacy campaigns will not be reform. In future elections, the disparity between reported expenditures and unreported outlays will continue to grow.
This article originally appeared on the PoliticsNow Web site.
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