Scott E. Thomas has a lot of harsh things to say about how money in politics is regulated.
"You need to have an agency with some gumption," he said. But that's one thing, he complained, that the Federal Election Commission doesn't have.
The problem is that the commissioners are too timid and beholden to the politicians they are supposed to watch. "The agency really has to maintain a significant degree of independence to be effective and credible," Thomas said. "If you continue to appoint people with very close connections to the political players, the chance of getting someone with independent judgment is slim."
It's hard to disagree with Thomas for many reasons. The best one is this: Thomas is chairman of the Federal Election Commission.
If Merriam-Webster possessed some whimsy, its dictionary would picture the FEC seal next to the definition of feckless. Its weak-kneed rulings over the years have opened the way for the worst abuses of the election finance system, including loopholes that led to the infamous soft money of the 1980s and 1990s and, more recently, the free-spending "independent groups" called 527s that cast a pall over the last presidential election.
Thomas has consistently been the commissioner least likely to gut the election laws. He is a vigorous regulator, and proudly so, among the FEC's many deregulators. "I am, one could say, a strict enforcer of the laws," Thomas said. "I would like us to be more tilted to interpreting the law rather than creating loopholes that undermine the effectiveness of the statutes passed by Congress."
Sound reasonable? Sure it does. But that's the last thing that the lawmakers in power want. That's why he is also the commissioner most likely to be unseated. And soon.
Thomas is chairman now -- in fact, he's been chairman three times in the past -- but the fancy title doesn't get him more than one vote, which he has frequently cast against the majority. He's had a long and often frustrating run as a commissioner whether he was chairman or not.
The soft-spoken Thomas began his career at the FEC as an intern 30 years ago. The commission had just opened as an antidote to the Watergate scandal. After he graduated from law school in 1977, Thomas joined the FEC's legal staff and eventually rose to become assistant general counsel of the enforcement division.
He moved in 1983 from the agency's staff to the office of commissioner Thomas E. Harris, a Democrat and an original FEC member. Three years later, in 1986, Thomas, then 33 years old, was appointed to fill the remainder of Harris's term. He became the youngest commissioner in FEC history and was reappointed in 1991 and 1997. His most recent term officially expired in April 2003.
Ever since, he has been all but out the door several times. He was even told by his Democratic patrons that he was sure to be ousted. Only the intervention of like-minded members of Congress led by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) have prevented him from being replaced by an advocate of lax enforcement.
The Thomas saga is emblematic of the broader money mess that the campaign process faces. Federal elections last year cost more than $4 billion and spending continues to grow by leaps and bounds. The FEC's annual budget is a measly $53 million and the agency is hoping against hope for a cost-of-living increase. No one thinks that it will ever keep up with candidates' shenanigans.
The agency has tried to increase its audits and its fines, but would-be office holders disregard its rules all the time, blithely accepting its meager penalties as "a cost of doing business," said Kent Cooper, co-founder of PoliticalMoneyLine, a research group.
"It's not considered a major law enforcement agency," said Lawrence M. Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. He should know. From October 1987 through December 2000, Noble was the FEC's general counsel.
Many campaign managers, faced with a choice between finding enough money to win an election and avoiding what could be an FEC fine, routinely decide to test the agency, Noble said. Why should they lose an election over an investigation that could take a couple of years and cost a few thousand dollars?
McCain and others have been trying to change this sad state for years. One idea is to strengthen the FEC. Its fines could be raised, its staff expanded and its powers enhanced so that it could, for the first time, directly enforce its laws, preferably with a system of administrative judges that it now lacks.
Another notion is to change the makeup of the commission. Of its six members (half Republicans, half Democrats), the terms of four have already expired. Wouldn't it be lovely if the congressional leaders who help President Bush choose their replacements insist on people like Thomas who want a tough line?
Yes it would. But that is extremely unlikely. The FEC is a captive agency, controlled by the people it is supposed to oversee -- the sometimes lawless lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Thomas may be the last of a noble breed whose time in the sun is almost over.
If you worry about representatives of industry or labor wielding too much influence on members of Congress, add this to the things that will keep you awake at night. At least 39 federal lawmakers employ registered lobbyists as treasurers -- the titular overseers -- of their campaign committees, or so-called leadership PACs.
A soon-to-be released study by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity finds that lobbyists regularly bolster their already sizable clout by helping to run, not just contribute to, congressmen's money machines.
One of the most prolific lobbyist/PAC-men is William C. Oldaker, who has been treasurer of 23 political committees since 1998. He currently is treasurer of the leadership PACs of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Max Baucus (Mont), the ranking Democrat on the finance committee, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the center said. "I review their FEC reports," Oldaker said.
Since 1998 Oldaker has also worked as a lobbyist for tobacco giant Philip Morris, now called Altria; the electric utility industry's Edison Electric Institute; hospitals and universities. Which is quite a combination.
Then again, Oldaker has the perfect background to deliver this one-two punch. He, too, is a former general counsel of the FEC.
Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. E-mail him at email@example.com.