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13. Congress Wants to Take the Money and Run

Source: COMMON CAUSE MAGAZINE Date: Summer 1995, “Take the Money and Run” Author: Vicki Kemper

SYNOPSIS: At a time when voters are more disgusted than ever by the big-money business of political campaigns, it’s nice to know that there is a “cop” on the beat. The “cop” is the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Its job is to ensure that all money that goes into and comes out of campaign war chests is legal and accounted for, and ultimately that the nation will never again be rocked by a Watergate-scale political scandal financed by secret slush funds.

And voters need such a cop to watch Congress. Just last year, the overworked and much maligned FEC watchdog agency collected a record $1.7 million in civil penalties for illegal campaign financing activities.

However, the FEC’s hard work isn’t appreciated by everyone. It has had an on-going battle, as far back as 1986, with budget cuts. Most recently, the 1994 election results threaten to weaken the agency for years to come. The Republicans, who won control of the House, took just over a month to quietly approve a series of actions that could cripple the FEC.

First, the House Appropriations Committee voted to strip the FEC of almost $2.8 million, roughly 20 percent of what’s left of its budget for the current fiscal year. Then, the House Oversight Committee rejected the FEC’s budget request for the 1996 fiscal year, authorizing almost $4.2 million less than the agency said it needed.

Few believe the budget cuts are unrelated to recent FEC enforcement actions, although it probably was just a coincidence that the Oversight Committee acted precisely one day before the most hated of regulations ever declared by the FEC—rules that bar candidates from using campaign funds for vacations, cars, meals, and other personal expenses—took effect on April 5, 1995.

“We don’t think that the FEC should be micro-managing our campaigns,” said House Appropriations Chair Bob Livingston (R-La.), an agency opponent who now controls its purse strings. Livingston, who adamantly opposes the personal use rules, tried to slash the FEC’s budget last year-precisely so it wouldn’t have the funds to regulate and enforce campaign spending.

While the House Republicans have been attacking the FEC’s budget, there’s been an explosion in the number of campaigns for Congress and the presidency which ultimately create an increased work load for the FEC.

Since 1990, the number of federal candidates has increased 34 percent; the amount of money raised and spent is up 54 percent; the number of campaign-related complaints filed with the FEC has increased 45 percent; and the number of information requests is up 17 percent.

It’s ironic that the same Congress that loudly calls for tougher anticrime measures is working to disempower the agency charged with policing its own campaign activities.

SSU Censored Researcher: Tami Ward

COMMENTS: Vicki Kemper, investigative writer for Common Cause Magazine, said that except for a piece by syndicated columnist David Broder, who contacted her for background information, the subject received virtually no attention in the mass media as far as she knew.

Kemper feels strongly about the public’s need to be aware of how elected officials are abusing their power to stay in office and spending their campaign money as they please. “Of course,” Kemper continued, “part of what was behind the House’s actions against the FEC is an attempt to make sure the public does not know how candidates use their campaign funds. As serious students of campaign spending reports know, for years many candidates have used their campaign accounts as personal slush funds, financing meals, travel, clothing, country club dues and more. The key instigators of the investigation of the FEC and the budget cuts were acting in part out of pique over recent regulations designed to restrict the personal use of campaign funds. Voters need to know the extent to which their elected officials are abusing their offices, the extent to which they feel entitled to do so, and the lengths to which they’re willing to go to maintain those privileges.”

Kemper had a warning for voters in 1996: “Voters also need to be aware that candidates running for office in 1996 will likely be able to get away with more monkey business than ever because of the constraints placed on the FEC by the very people it’s supposed to monitor.”

Kemper noted that limited coverage of this subject benefits “everyone who runs for federal office and wants to get away with something. Most of all, it benefits incumbents who are running for reelection.”

“I submitted op-eds on the subject to the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Post’s Sunday opinion sections (where I’ve had pieces published before) with no results,” Kemper said. An editor of the Post’s ‘Outlook’ section explained their rejection of the piece this way: They’d been running too many articles on budget cuts to federal programs. Clearly they’d missed the point.”

The Fall 1995 issue of Common Cause Magazine published a follow-up report which revealed that the investigation of the FEC by its congressional opponents “turned up no smoking guns.” In fact, the House Appropriations Committee’s staff report concluded that “the disclosure and audit side of the FEC, including personnel, appears to be well-managed.”

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