The Federal Election Commission (FEC) was created in 1975 to oversee and enforce the Federal Election Campaign Act, or FECA, which governs the financing of federal elections. An independent regulatory committee, the role of the FEC is to monitor campaign finance contributions, enforce regulations on spending and campaign funding, and distribute public funds for Presidential elections. The FEC is governed by six Commissioners who are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a six-year term. Seats are staggered so that two members are appointed every two years, and no more than three board members can be of the same political party at one time. To further encourage non-partisan decision-making, at least four votes are required to approve any Commission decision. The chairmanship of the Commission rotates on a yearly basis, and no Commissioner can serve more than once during their term.
In 1971, Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), designed to place stricter guidelines on federal election financing and limit the spending and influence of wealthy individuals and special interest groups. While FECA created more stringent disclosure requirements for candidates, political parties and political action committees (PACs), in its original form it did not create a body to enforce these requirements, leading to a number of financial abuses during the 1972 presidential campaign.
In 1974, Congress amended the Federal Election Campaign Act, setting stricter limits on contributions by individuals, parties, and PACs. The amendment also created the FEC, an independent body to oversee and enforce the campaign finance laws. The Commission opened in 1975 and administered the first publicly funded Presidential election in 1976.
In 2002, Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Russell Feingold (D-Wisconsin) introduced a bill to revise the FECA. First proposed in 1995, the McCain-Feingold Act gained momentum following the 2000 election, which saw a major increase in so-called “soft money,” political funds contributed to organizations that are not directly tied to a specific candidate’s campaign. Prior to 2002, soft money was often spent on issues ads, political ads that stopped short of expressly endorsing a particular candidate. Known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, the bill prohibited political parties from raising or spending soft money and restricted the use and funding of issues ads.
Current FECA regulations require all candidates and their committees to disclose any money that they raise and spend. Candidates must identify any PACs and organizations that give them contributions, as well as all individuals who contribute more than $200 in one campaign cycle. The FECA also places limits on the size of contributions from individuals, organizations and PACs. Individuals may contribute up to $2,500 to each candidate per election and up to $30,800 to a national party committee per calendar year.
In January 2010, campaign finance laws were shaken up when the Supreme Court, in a narrow vote, overturned a 20-year old ruling that prevented corporations from freely spending money to support or oppose candidates. The court decision—which allows open-ended corporate campaign spending—grew out of a lawsuit filed by the conservative non-profit group Citizens United against the FEC, seeking the right to advertise an anti-Hillary Clinton documentary at the peak of the 2008 campaign season, in spite of restrictions on corporate campaign spending.
The mission of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) is to “prevent corruption in the Federal campaign process by administering, enforcing, and formulating policy with respect to Federal campaign finance statutes.” Toward this goal, the FEC’s main activities include disclosing campaign finance information, educating stakeholders on specific provisions of the Federal Election Campaign Act, and enforcing the limits and prohibitions in the Act. Headquartered in Washington D.C., the FEC has 375 full-time employees (FY 2013 estimate). Nearly all of the FEC’s budget goes toward salaries and office expenses.
The FEC is directed by six Commissioners, each appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. To foster bipartisan decision-making, no more than three Commissioners can be members of the same political party. Each Commissioner serves for a six-year term, with two Commissioners up for replacement every two years. The Chairmanship of the FEC rotates among the Commissioners, with each Commissioner serving for one year during their tenure. Any official action or policy requires approval of at least four Commissioners.
FEC’s activities are organized with three objectives: transparency, compliance, and development of law.
One of the most important duties of the FEC is to ensure transparency of campaign contributions and finances. The FEC collects reports from all registered political committees, campaigns and PACs and makes them available within 48 hours on their website. In addition, since its inception in 1972, the FEC has maintained a public record of all campaign activities, funds used to finance federal elections, and personal financial statements filed by Presidential candidates.
The FEC works closely with the Department of Justice to enforce the provisions of the FECA. The FEC learns of possible election law violations through a voluntary self-reporting program, through a sworn complaint process, through audits of campaign finance reports, and by referrals by other government agencies. The Office of the General Counsel’s Enforcement Division handles most enforcement matters.
The third main role of the FEC is to help candidates and organizations understand federal campaign laws. To do this, the FEC produces a variety of publications, including the Record, a monthly newsletter, and provides copies of federal election campaign laws and FEC regulations. The FEC also host conferences in major cities to inform campaign workers and party committees about the law and maintains a library of election law resources and research open to the public.
To improve public transparency and in order to deal with the increasing workload, the FEC implemented a large-scale IT improvement initiative. This initiative includes the e-Review system, a web-based review and distribution system that allows the FEC to generate, circulate and review campaign finance reports. The FEC also announced development of an Intranet portal, to allow employees to access digital documents and data within the agency.
Another major role of the FEC is to distribute and administer public funding for Presidential elections. The funds are collected by the IRS through an optional $3 income tax check-off, but are distributed and calculated by the FEC. Candidates who opt-in for the presidential public financing system must agree not to raise or spend private funds or more than $50,000 of their own personal money. The FEC also provides a dollar for dollar match for contributions up to $250 during presidential primaries, if the candidate agrees to limit spending according to FECA regulations.
From the Web Site of the Federal Election Commission
In fiscal year 2013, it is estimated that 69.8% of all Federal Election Commission (FEC) expenditures will go to personnel salaries and benefits, 13.2% to OCIO (Office of Chief Information Officer) support and initiatives, 8.8% to facility rentals, and 8.2% to other areas.
During the past decade, the FEC spent $65.8 million on over 5,000 transactions with contractors, most of whom are large IT companies specializing in government contracts.
The top five recipients of FEC funding between 2002 and 2011are:
1. ATS Corporation $10,513,713
2. GTSI Corp. $4,353,104
3. NIC Inc. $4,344,205
4. Savvis Inc. $4,044,028
5. Thomson Company Inc. $2,449,779
FEC Deadlocked by Partisanship
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) deadlocked in May 2011 on whether to revisit proposed rules to require disclosure in political advertisements by corporations and labor unions. The 3-3 tie between Democratic and Republican appointees on the FEC was nothing new, as partisan divide has increasingly hamstrung the commission from doing its job.
Richard Hasen, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, told The New York Times that the FEC has been going through “a new period of dysfunction … where you have this kind of deadlock that’s never been seen before.” Hasen attributed the problem to a lack of “cross-party cooperation, and there’s no meeting of the minds on what the role of the FEC should be or even what’s constitutional.”
Some critics have blamed Republicans for the standstill, saying the GOP is bent on crippling the commission, if not getting rid of it altogether.
In 2006, the FEC handed out $6.7 million in fines to politicians and organizations that broke federal campaign rules. By 2009, less than $1 million in penalties was assessed. Experts said the reduction in fines was a result, in part, of the inability of commissioners to reach consensus.
Election Commission Decisions Deadlocking on Party Lines (by Bernie Becker, New York Times)
Federal Election Commission Deadlocks in Discussions About New Disclosure Rules for Political Advertisements (by Kathleen Ronayne, OpenSecrets.org)
The Toothless Election Police (by Laurel Adams, The Daily Beast)
In June 2008, Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama declared that he would pass on accepting public financing for his presidential campaign. Had he accepted, his campaign would have been limited to $84 million in spending during the general election. His was the first Presidential campaign to decline public funding since its inception in 1976. Obama described the public finance system as “creaky,” noting that, “the amount of money raised through the public financing system may be substantially lower than the amount of money that can be raised over the Internet.” In January 2011, the House passed a Republican-sponsored bill to eliminate the public financing of presidential campaigns, claiming it would reduce the deficit by $617 million over the coming decade. The Obama administration immediately expressed opposition to the bill, claiming it would “expand the power of corporations and special interests.”
Obama: Public Finance System “Creaky” (by Domenico Montanaro, MSNBC)
Replacement of FEC Director
In May 2008, President Bush moved to replace FEC Chairman David Mason, after Mason challenged the legality of Sen. John McCain’s Presidential campaign finance plan. Mason notified Senator McCain that he might violate FECA statutes if he switched from public funding to private donations after securing his party’s nomination.
Bipartisan Congressional Standoff
In 2005, President George W. Bush nominated conservative Republican Hans von Spakovsky to the FEC. After serving on a recess appointment for a year, von Spakovsky was renominated and sent with three other nominees to the Senate for confirmation. Senate Democrats refused to approve von Spakovsky’s nomination, after receiving a letter from former civil service staff of the Voting Section of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division strongly criticizing von Spakovsky’s prior tenure at the DOJ’s Voting Section, arguing that he used his time at the Voting Section to further “partisan political interests.” In a written statement, Senator Edward Kennedy noted that von Spakovsky, “may be at the heart of the political interference that is undermining the [Justice] Department's enforcement of federal civil laws."
In response to Senate Democrats’ refusal to confirm von Spakovksy, Senate Republicans refused to approve any Democratic nominees to the FEC, resulting in a six-month political standoff that left only two Commissioners at the FEC, effectively stopping any work by the FEC, which requires four votes to take any action. The deadlock ended in June 2008, after von Spakovsky withdrew his nomination to the FEC. The Senate confirmed five new commissioners for the FEC, including two Democrats and three Republicans.
Senate Confirms New FEC Commissioners, Ending Long Partisan Standoff (by John Brenahan, The Politico)
Hans Von Spakovsky: Right Choice for FEC Commissioner? (by Adam Lambert, ePluribus Media)
The Bad FEC Commissioner (by J. Gerald Hebert, Campaign Legal Center)
In 2007, U.S. Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold introduced another bill to drastically restructure the FEC. Known as the Federal Election Administration Act, the bill would have replaced the FEC with a three-member board. The board would have been led and directed by a Chairman, appointed by the President for a term of 10 years, with the two remaining board members, one from each party, playing more of a consultative role. The bill did not pass.
Fix the FEC (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington)
Does the FEC go too far in enforcing campaign laws or is it ineffective?
FEC Tramples Rights:
The FEC has received a wide variety of criticisms. Some believe that the agency goes too far in enforcing and administering campaign finance law, thereby infringing on First Amendment rights of free speech.
Fix the McCain-Feingold Law: Oops - Can I Say That? (by Jonathan Rauch, Reason)
On the other side of the argument are those who believe that the bipartisan structure of the agency renders it ineffective and toothless. Critics of the FEC, who have nicknamed it the “Failure to Enforce Commission,” note that despite additional 2002 restrictions on campaign finance and contributions, the FEC has passed a number of regulations that provide loopholes on soft money. Further, the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision (see the History section), and consequent FEC rulings, opened even more avenues of campaign spending, allowing the evolution of Super PACs—supposed non-party-affiliated groups that can accept funds from individuals or companies without limit.
Overhaul the FEC: Election watchdog can't stop abuses (Editorial, San Diego Union-Tribune)
Super PACs Find New Way To Hide Money (Huffington Post, Politics)
David M. Mason (1998-2008)
Nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1998, Mason was given a second term by President George W. Bush in 2005. Mason attended Lynchburg College in Virginia and graduated cum laude from Claremont McKenna College in California. He served as a staffer on Capitol Hill and was Staff Director to then-House Republican Whip Trent Lott. A Republican, Mason ran for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates in 1982. Prior to serving on the FEC, Mason was a Senior Fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a prominent conservative think tank.
Hans A. von Spakovsky (2006-2007)
Robert D. Lenhard (2006-2007)
Michael E. Toner (2002-2007)
Bradley A. Smith (2000-2005)
Karl J. Sandstrom (1998-2002)
Darryl R. Wold (1998-2002)
Trevor Potter (1991-1995)
Scott E. Thomas (1986 -2006)
Thomas J. Josefiak (1985-1991)
Danny L. McDonald (1981-2006)
Lee Ann Elliott (1981-2000)
Frank P. Reiche (1979-1985)
Max L. Friedersdorf (1979-1980)
John Warren McGarry (1978-1998)
William L. Springer (1976-1979)
Robert O. Tiernan (1975-1981)
Vernon W. Thomson (1975-1978)
Neil O. Staebler (1975-1978)
Thomas E. Harris (1975-1986)
Thomas B. Curtis (1975-1976)
Joan D. Aikens (1975-1998)
Former FEC Commissioners (FEC)
Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub was elected chair of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) for 2013 on December 20, 2012, having previously served as chair in 2003. She was given a recess appointment to the Commission by President George W. Bush on December 6, 2002, and took office on December 9, 2002. She was re-nominated on January 9, 2003, and confirmed by unanimous consent of the United States Senate on March 18, 2003. Weintraub succeeds Caroline Hunter, a Republican, under the party-alternating chairmanship system of the FEC.
Weintraub has at times been blunt about the ineffectiveness of the FEC, which is supposed to oversee campaign finance laws, but has been torn by partisan politics. “The notion that we are a fierce investigative agency that people are quaking in their boots about is probably not the case,” she said in May 2011. “Back in ’06 and ’07, they said we were ‘feckless’ and ‘toothless,’ I am not sure what the adjective would be today.”
Born in June 1957 in New York, the daughter of Edward, who served as regional information director for the U.S. Department of Labor in New York, and Judith Weintraub, Ellen Weintraub earned a B.A. in British Studies at Yale in 1978 and a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1984. She is a member of the New York and District of Columbia bars.
After graduating law school, Weintraub went into private practice as a litigation associate at the New York firm of Cahill Gordon & Reindel, where she worked from 1984 to 1990. She got her first taste of public service and of election law by joining the House Ethics Committee, serving as counsel from 1990 to 1996. Weintraub’s work focused on implementing the Ethics Reform Act of 1989, editing the House Ethics Manual, and contributing to the Senate Ethics Manual.
From 1996 to 2002 Weintraub was “of counsel” in the Political Law Group at the Washington, DC, office of the law firm of Perkins Coie, where she counseled clients on campaign finance and election laws, political ethics, and lobbying regulation. During the election contest arising out of the 1996 election of Senator Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana), Weintraub served on the legal team advising the Senate Rules Committee.
Weintraub is married to William G. Dauster, currently Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), with whom she has three children.
The Federal Election Commission (FEC), an independent agency established by Congress in the wake of campaign finance abuses by the re-election campaign of President Richard Nixon, elected a new Chair to a one-year term on December 15, 2011. The FEC, which monitors campaign contributions, enforces regulations on campaign spending and funding, and distributes public funds for Presidential elections, chose Caroline C. Hunter, a well-connected Republican placed on the FEC by President George W. Bush in 2008.