Money and Democracy

Published — February 9, 2016

FEC marked for modest budget boost

White House proposal would mean more cash, staff for elections agency


President Barack Obama wants the Federal Election Commission to get a modest budget boost.

The White House’s fiscal year 2017 budget proposal calls for the FEC, an agency that’s recently suffered from anemic funding, staffing cuts and internal discord, to receive about $80.5 million — more than ever before.

The funding would allow the FEC to employ the equivalent of 365 full-time staffers, according to the proposal released today by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. That represents 34 more staffers than the agency employed just two years ago — about a 10 percent workforce increase.

An FEC budget allocation at the level the White House is proposing “would provide the commission with adequate funds to fulfill its mission of protecting the integrity of the federal campaign finance system,” said agency Chairman Matthew Petersen, a Republican.

The FEC’s budget figure does come with one key caveat: $8 million of its proposed $80.5 million is reserved for expenses associated with the agency’s likely move from its current headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C., to another, yet-to-be-selected building.

When funds for moving and leasing expenses are excluded, the FEC is slated to receive $72.5 million in fiscal year 2017 — about $1.4 million more than it got in fiscal year 2016.

The proposed increase also continues to reverse a trend from earlier this decade, when the FEC’s annual budget stalled out near $66 million in 2010, 2011 and 2012 after 16 straight years of funding growth.

The agency then experienced a budget cut in 2013, the same year Chinese hackers infiltrated its computer and network systems. The hack prompted the agency to invest in cybersecurity improvements, and Congress approved small budget increases in subsequent years.

Congress created the FEC more than 40 years ago to enforce and regulate the nation’s election laws.

But the agency, which among its commissioners features three Democratic appointees and three Republican appointees, often deadlocks along ideological lines on high-profile cases.

Petersen acknowledged in December upon assuming the chairmanship that the FEC would at best hit “singles” during 2016.

In other words, don’t expect the agency to agree on prescriptions for the thornier issues of this election cycle, such as how to regulate “dark money” or write new rules governing how super PACs may coordinate efforts with the political candidates they support.

As it’s done for several years, the White House’s latest FEC budget proposal predicts a $430,000 savings from U.S. Senate candidates filing their campaign finance reports electronically, instead of on paper.

Obama’s thinking, however, may be little more than wishful: the Senate last year again refused to shed its decidedly 20th century ways and adopt the same campaign disclosure procedures used by presidential and U.S. House candidates.

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