TCS Daily

Where Angels Fear to Tread: The FEC

By Ryan H. Sager - August 10, 2005 12:00 AM

Why is it that campaign-finance-reform advocates and their accomplices in the media are able to recognize politicians as the petty criminals they are when it comes to mundane issues such as highway-bill pork and tax-loophole drawing, yet their heads implant themselves firmly in their rectums when it comes to the regulation of elections?

That's the question to ask as the battle begins to fill as many as four openings on the Federal Election Commission, the independent agency charged with enforcing the nation's campaign-finance laws.

Four of the agency's six commissioners are serving on expired terms. There was some speculation that President Bush would use his recess-appointment power to fill the slots, but he failed to submit any names to Congress before it went out of session July 29, making any such move extremely unlikely.

And, so, both sides are lining up for a fight when Congress returns. No, not the Republicans and the Democrats. The self-proclaimed "reformers" versus the two-party establishment.

Guess who will win.

The FEC, you see, is set up -- like all campaign-finance measures -- essentially as a bi-partisan incumbent-protection racket. No one wants "reformers" of any kind on the FEC. Democrats want Democrats on the FEC. And Republicans want Republicans. Therefore, when Congress set up the agency in 1974, it was decreed that no party could control more than three seats on the commission. Four votes are required to take any given action. Therefore, everything the FEC does will be acceptable to both parties. (People "running" for Congress or the presidency aren't so well represented -- they, after all, didn't get to appoint or confirm the FEC's members.)

What this means, however, is that what's often called the "reform community" -- actually, it's a collection of front groups funded by eight liberal foundations -- is constantly left clucking its tongue at the "corrupt" FEC.

If only, they argue, Congress and the president could get together and appoint some high-minded, non-partisan, public-spirited commissioners, our politics could be made clean and wholesome.

It's as if they've read James Madison, but missed the irony. "If men were angels, no government would be necessary," Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51. "If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."

Madison's point, in the first sentence, was to counteract the somewhat anarchic streak that had taken hold in American political thinking since the Declaration of Independence. In the second sentence, he acknowledged the danger of placing power in corruptible, human hands.

The reformers, however, seem to have read the second sentence and thought: "Yes! Angels! That's the ticket!"

Editorializing about the four open FEC slots, Roll Call says that it would prefer "men and women who would look beyond the interest of one party and try to objectively interpret and apply the laws governing campaigns." In the same breath, it admits that "Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress are well within their rights to put forward candidates for the FEC who they believe will protect their interests, and given the political climate in Washington, it would be naive to expect anything different."

Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer -- who is nothing if not perpetually naïve -- expressed horror to a Roll Call reporter that new commissioners might be chosen "by Democratic and Republican congressional leaders with the clear mandate to protect the interests of the leaders and their congressional colleagues."

Heaven forefend.

But, in all seriousness, what do these folks expect? You can't hand over control of a Rube Goldberg-esque campaign-regulation system to Congress and the president and expect them to administer it "objectively." What would that mean? Who decides what's objective?

So, the reformers shouldn't be surprised that Bush and the Democratic leadership are each proposing their own slates of party loyalists for the FEC. And the speech police have absolutely no standing to whine and moan when their proposed picks -- a list of uber-reformers being floated by Sen. McCain's office -- are dismissed out of hand.

Politicians are politicians all of the time -- whether they're helping themselves to an extra-serving of farm-subsidy bacon, writing new laws about when their opponents can and can't run ads about them or appointing bureaucrats to enforce those laws.

There are no angels at the FEC. There aren't any in Congress or at the White House. And the sooner arrogant reformers like Sen. McCain and Fred Wertheimer realize that they're no angels either, the better for all of us -- and for the Constitution.

Ryan Sager is a member of the editorial board of The New York Post. He also edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections and can be reached at


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