The room is filled with the paraphernalia of modern campaign reporting: files and microfilm readers, computer terminals and computer printouts. Yet the walls are covered with replicas of cartoonist Thomas Nast's dour vision of 19th-century American politics.
The reading room at the Federal Election Commission is not just a window on the interplay of money and power in American politics. It also provides, at a glance, a look at what this tiny agency can do to end, or at least to expose, modern abuses akin to those Nast caricatured.
Throughout the government, from the Justice Department to the U.S. Information Agency, from the Merit Systems Protection Board to the Federal Communications Commission, the jobs of a few bureaucrats revolve around the logistics of campaigning and voting and spreading the news of the vote. Their stories appear below.
But the lives of the 202 people at the FEC revolve around elections all the time, thanks to the 1974 law that created the agency.
In the FEC reading room during the past three weeks, journalists, Common Cause employes, representatives from political action committees and the national parties filled every available chair studying campaign financing reports. Nearly 10,000 reports, running 168,000 pages, were filed in October alone by the 1,200 or so candidates for federal office and the political action committees and party committees that gave them money.
In other parts of the office, FEC staffers were working overtime putting the information into a computer, while the reports analysis division was studying the reports to make sure candidates complied with the relevant portions of the campaign financing law. Over in the public information office, employes were talking to candidates and their campaign staffs about what they can do under the law.
And in the general counsel's office, specialists in election law were poring over complaints, deciding whether to recommend civil proceedings to the six commissioners. Potential criminal cases are referred to the Justice Department.
"It's slow today," said Kent Cooper as he surveyed the reading room he supervises. Last week, when the daily temperatures peaked in the low 60s, "we had to turn on the air conditioners and open the doors. The machines get hot, you know, and there were a lot of people in here looking at the files. In the last two weeks we accumulated 208 hours of overtime," keeping the reading room open until 7 p.m. and on weekends.
"I guess it means we're doing something right."