Money and Democracy

Published — December 17, 2013 Updated — May 13, 2014 at 3:10 pm ET

Incoming FEC bosses pledge to work together following blistering Center report

Commission to ask Congress for perimission to accept gifts to upgrade technology


The newly elected chairman and vice chairman of the Federal Election Commission pledged to work together to tackle a host of agency problems detailed today by the Center for Public Integrity in an investigative report.

Both Lee Goodman, a Republican who becomes chairman in 2014, and Ann Ravel, a Democrat and incoming vice chairman, say fixing the bipartisan agency’s information technology systems is a top priority.

They vowed to hire new IT security specialists during the next two months. Agency funds will also be diverted to bolster internal system security. A long-term plan to enhance public portions of its digital offerings will also be completed in 2014, they said.

In addition, at a meeting Tuesday morning, commissioners voted unanimously to formally ask Congress for permission to accept “gifts that will assist the commission in carrying out its functions,” particularly those that would help update the agency’s technology.

“Gifts” would likely come in the form of donated help from “individuals or organizations that support the agencies’ mission of enhancing transparency,” the commissioners wrote in a memorandum they plan to send to President Barack Obama and Congress.

“This is something we’re in total agreement on,” Ravel said.

“We can do better,” Goodman said.

Current Chairman Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, added that she expected “some” of the FEC’s IT problems to be solved by February following what she described as “a challenging year to lead the agency.”

Chinese hackers waylaid the FEC’s servers in October just as the federal government shut down over a budget impasse. Its website, which makes public the agency’s millions of political candidate and committee campaign finance records, went dark for several days and operated at partial capacity for the government shutdown’s duration.

Even during the more placid times, the agency’s website is widely regarded by the public and commissioners alike as obsolete, where simple searches for enforcement cases or campaign vendors are difficult, if not impossible. IT matters are just one aspect of multiple agency problems, which include understaffing, poor morale and partisan gridlock.

But FEC commissioners ended 2013 on a conciliatory note.

At the agency’s final meeting of the year, Ravel nominated Goodman for the chairmanship, which traditionally rotates between Democratic and Republican appointees every year. Republican commissioner Caroline Hunter nominated Ravel for the vice chairmanship.

Both votes were unanimous and the nominators spoke glowingly of their colleagues — a departure from the sometimes bitter and decidedly public sniping between Weintraub and former Vice Chairman Don McGahn, who resigned in September.

The commission also unanimously approved several other legislative recommendations it will send to a president and Congress that have largely ignored the FEC’s previous requests.

On this year’s FEC wish list:

  • Require senators to file campaign finance reports electronically.
  • Require committees that make electioneering communications to file electronic reports.
  • Ban all political committees — including congressional leadership PACs — from using funds for personal needs.
  • Make permanent an “administrative fine” program to more efficiently punish low-level campaign finance reporting violations.
  • Increase and index for inflation the minimum amount committees must spend to report activity to the FEC. Currently, committees that spend $1,000 or more during a calendar year must register with federal regulators. The FEC did not recommend a specific dollar amount.
  • Create senior executive service positions within the agency, which commissioners say would help in “recruiting and retaining key management personnel.”
  • Strengthen laws to punish people who falsely represent themselves as working on behalf of a campaign or political party.

The commission failed to approve a recommendation to make all political action committees and super PACs report their financial activity quarterly — not semi-annually, as many do — during non-election years.

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