Broken Government

Published — December 10, 2008 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Paralysis at the Federal Election Commission

The FEC was unable to exercise meaningful control over the most expensive presidential election ever because it lacked a quorum


With 3-3 deadlocks common on key issues, often along party lines, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) — made up of three Democrats and three Republicans — has sometimes seemed like it was built for paralysis. 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain has called the commission’s design a “fundamental problem.” The FEC is supposed to enforce the nation’s federal campaign finance laws. But even in cases of bipartisan agreement that a campaign or committee has violated those laws, the FEC’s lengthy investigation process means there can be no punishment until after the election is long past. And in 2008, the FEC’s inability to exercise meaningful control of the most expensive presidential election ever ran into an even more serious impediment: lack of a quorum.

With the terms of three commissioners expired and one other seat vacant, President George W. Bush and the U.S. Senate’s Democratic majority engaged in a procedural stand-off over the confirmation of new commissioners from December 2007 until late June 2008. As the campaign steamed along and questions and controversies arose, there was literally no one there to field them — leaving the nation’s elections without a referee.

After a compromise between the Senate Democrats and the Republican administration led to confirmation of a total of five new commissioners on June 24, 2008, the quorum issue was resolved. Efforts by some in Congress to enact broader reform have not made it out of committee in the House or the Senate.

Read more in Money and Democracy

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