The faster the 2020 election approaches, the faster Donald Trump’s re-election hopes seem to sink — but a disturbing new development could open the floodgates of dark money even wider and allow all sorts of foreign actors and scheming billionaires to interfere with our ailing democracy.
The comically ineffective and overwhelmed watchdog body created to enforce our laughable campaign finance laws, the Federal Elections Commission, is now entirely unable to perform its duties. Republican commissioner Caroline Hunter has resigned her post to go work for the Koch Brothers’ “philanthropic” dark money network Stand Together, leaving the commission with just three members — one short of the quorum of four needed to pass any rules, levy any fines, or launch any investigations.
Deliberately designed to be as useless as possible, the FEC is perpetually hamstrung by the decision to make commissioner appointments partisan and the membership number even. Unsurprisingly, the Republican-controlled FEC board has not felt the need to launch any investigations since Donald Trump took office. In fact, since the board’s creation in 2010, the FEC has not penalized any illegal coordination between campaigns and outside political groups.
To make matters worse, there is almost no chance the position is filled before the election. The FEC hasn’t even been able to meet for the past ten months, thanks to the August 2019 resignation of Vice Chairman Matthew Petersen. Trump’s latest commissioner, Trey Trainor, was nominated in September 2017, but the Senate didn’t even hold a hearing until nearly three years later; he was sworn in on June 5th, 2020; less than a month later, the quorum was lost once again.
Trump’s replacement for Hunter is a pro-corruption champion whose nomination will be voraciously opposed by Senate Democrats. Allen Dickerson runs a dark money advocacy group predictably named the Institute for Free Speech, which wages legal battles against any and all efforts to crack down on the rampant political spending that is corrupting our democracy.
Confirming him would be the equivalent of confirming Wiley. E Coyote to the Commission of Roadrunner Management, and it’s not gonna happen. Of course, that’s only if Sen. Mitch McConnell even wanted to bring him up for a hearing at all; considering that he and his party have no intention of ever regulating campaign finance, the likelihood of that is almost nonexistent.
Even if Dickerson was somehow magically confirmed in record time, the FEC has a backlog of over three hundred cases.
Efforts by the sole Democratic commissioner, Ellen Weintraub, to pass new rules forcing the buyers of digital advertisements to disclose their identities have gone nowhere since the 2016 election. Spending on digital ads is projected to be in the billions during this election cycle and because of FEC dysfunction, foreign entities can freely purchase ads on behalf of Trump with the public none the wiser.
Trump’s Republican commissioners are not likely to want to change any rules that might negatively affect Trump’s re-election campaign, leaving the 2020 election wholly without a campaign finance watchdog.
If Joe Biden wins this election, as he should, one of his first acts needs to be major reform to the FEC to bring the lawless labyrinth of dark money in American politics under control. This is ridiculous.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.