Campaign Violation Gridlock
Unless your name is John Edwards, candidates for federal office very nearly enjoy open season these days when it comes to violating all but the most clear-cut federal election law.
That's not because of court decisions, although rulings opening the spigots for corporate money to flow into election campaigns have made sorting out what is and isn't a campaign finance violation more difficult.
In Washington, a bigger problem may be the Federal Election Commission, the six-member group charged with enforcing campaign finance law.
Today, the FEC isn't enforcing much. Instead, its behavior mostly mirrors the partisan bickering elsewhere in Washington. Political advantage, not any objective examination of the law, seems to be the primary consideration of the group, its membership evenly divided among Democrats and Republicans.
So, when the Delaware Republican Party filed a complaint against the campaign of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, the FEC dismissed the matter in a 3-3 vote.
The complaint alleged that O'Donnell's campaign coordinated with the faux grassroots part of the tea party movement, something called the Tea Party Express, while that group campaigned on her behalf.
Candidates, you see, aren't supposed to act in concert with their shadow campaigns, also known as independent expenditure groups. We all know that kind of thing rarely ever happens.
The evidence against O'Donnell's campaign included a Facebook posting from a campaign aide saying that he spoke daily with the Tea Party Express. Even so, the commission deadlocked, the three Republicans voting to drop the matter.
The O'Donnell case isn't unique. These 3-3 votes have become commonplace. The FEC is filled with partisan hacks - former congressional and White House staffers, and former national party workers. Its inability to set aside partisanship has become such a problem that a number of groups, including the League of Women Voters, have asked Congress to intervene.
What does this have to do with North Carolina?
Well, for the last several months, state legislators have been considering a bill that would combine the State Ethics Commission, the lobbyist review section of the Secretary of State's Office, and the campaign finance section of the State Board of Elections. A new eight-member board, its membership evenly split between the two political parties, would decide complaints. Sound familiar?
Right now, the five-member State Board of Elections decides campaign finance-related complaints in North Carolina. The partisan makeup of the board is based on the party of the governor.
Currently, three members are Democrats and two are Republicans.
It's not a perfect system. When considering politics, political considerations inevitably intrude.
Nonetheless, with a 3-2 Democratic majority, this board investigated former Democratic House Speaker Jim Black and former Democratic Gov. Mike Easley. It has fined several Democratic legislators.
Those are far better results than partisan gridlock, unless you like being flown all over the state by political cronies or prefer cash contributions in paper bags handed to you in public restrooms.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at email@example.com.
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