Take the Money and Run

Article excerpt

Angered by new regulations that restrict the use of campaign funds, members of Congress have gone after the nation's elections watchdog.

Although they're in the business of policing electoral campaigns, employees of the Federal, Election Commission (FEC) don't concern themselves officially with who wins elections. Their job, simply stated but none too simple, 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.

Last year the overworked and much maligned watchdog agency collected a record $1.7 million in civil penalties for illegal campaign financing activities; processed and disclosed record volumes of data on some 2,350 congressional campaigns; ruled that House Speaker Newt Gingrich's secretive political action committee, GOPAC, had violated campaign laws and then sued the PAC when it refused to pay a $150,000 fine; and finally developed and issued regulations that implement the 1979 law barring federal candidates from converting campaign funds to personal use.

But the 1994 election results threaten to weaken the agency for years to come. While the Republicans who won both the elections and control of the House boast of the accomplishments of their first 100 days, it took them just over a month to quietly approve a series of actions that could cripple the FEC - and undermine the integrity of the nation s electoral system - even as it moves into what will surely be the busiest federal election cycle in history.

From late February, to early April, some of the agency's strongest critics, now in powerful House positions, hit the FEC with a triple whammy: 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. (In mid-May a House-Senate conference committee cut the rescission in half, but in June President Clinton vetoed the entire spending-cuts package.)

Then, with the agency still reeling from the impact of that cut, the House Oversight Committee rejected the FEC's budget request for the 1996 fiscal year, authorizing $27.6 million - barely half a million dollars more than its 1995 pre-rescission budget and almost $4.2 million less than the agency said it needed.

All this while there's been an explosion in campaigns for Congress and the presidency. Since 1990 the number of federal candidates has increased 34 percent; the amount of campaign 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.

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 regulations ever promulgated by the FEC - rules that bar candidates from using campaign funds for vacations, cars, meals and other personal expenses - took effect on April 5. And it wouldn't be the first time Congress has penalized the agency for doing its job; after random FEC audits of 1976 House campaigns revealed that one-third of House members whose reelection campaigns were reviewed had received illegal contributions, Congress prohibited the agency from conducting random audits.

But while that restriction (which still stands) targeted a specific enforcement tool of the FEC, the House's recent budget-cutting actions appear designed to undercut all the agency's policing powers and capabilities. Republicans want the agency to spend a greater proportion of its smaller budget on computer upgrades, electronic filing and other disclosure functions - leaving less money and personnel for the actual enforcement of campaign laws. This same Congress that calls for tougher anti-crime measures is working to disempower the agency charged with policing its own campaign activities. …