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FEC still hasn't issued new campaign spending rules

WASHINGTON — A year after the Supreme Court's landmark decision easing campaign spending restrictions for corporations and interest groups, the Federal Election Commission has yet to issue regulations spelling out the full implications of the decision.

The commission increasingly has been paralyzed by a sometimes bitter standoff between Republicans and Democrats on the evenly divided panel. And although most of the commissioners will soon be serving in expired terms, President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans have not been able to agree on replacements.

The court found in its Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision that the First Amendment allows unfettered spending on campaigns by corporations, nonprofits and unions. Shortly after the January 2010 ruling, the commission said it would no longer enforce regulations that had been directly struck down by the court.

But the effort to write new regulations has been halted by the partisan standoff over how much interest groups must disclose about their financial backers in election spending.

Democratic commissioners are demanding that the FEC consider new rules requiring interest groups to reveal who is underwriting campaign advertising. They point to the court ruling, saying eight of the nine justices favored public access to information on donors.

"We are not currently getting the kind of the disclosure that the statute requires," said Ellen Weintraub, one of the Democratic commissioners. "The trend is pretty clear: We're seeing more spending, less disclosure."

Republicans on the commission, however, are objecting, saying only Congress has the authority to require disclosure through legislation. At a meeting in January, the commission tried — and failed — to agree even on a notice soliciting public comment on which rules should be changed.

The stalemate has been worsened by the political rhetoric around corporate spending on elections. Obama and congressional Democrats strongly criticized the court's decision and the practice among some interest groups of shielding their donors.

The disagreement over disclosure mirrors other divisions on the FEC over how vigorously to enforce campaign spending laws generally. The commissioners have found themselves in a partisan standoff significantly more often than their predecessors. According to the watchdog group Public Citizen, the FEC has deadlocked on one out of seven cases during the past 2 1/2 years, compared with one out of 50 cases in the prior five years.

The panel gridlocked last month, for example, when it could not agree on whether a negative message from Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., about his opponent in the midterm elections violated laws by not clearly identifying that he had paid for it.

The public "has a right to know who is responsible for such advertisements," the three Democratic commissioners wrote, explaining their vote that the mailer was illegal.

Don McGahn, a Republican commissioner, said that he voted to dismiss the case because he had no problem finding the text identifying who paid for the mailer.

Advocates of tighter campaign spending rules are calling for Obama to appoint new commissioners. In May, five of the six commissioners will be serving in expired terms.

FEC still hasn't issued new campaign spending rules 03/28/11 [Last modified: Monday, March 28, 2011 12:01am]

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