Watchdogs to Obama: Fix the FEC

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As a multimillion-dollar barrage of negative attack ads hits South Carolina Republican primary voters — bloodying GOP candidates in the process — a coalition of watchdog groups has launched a petition to try to re-energize the agency charged with policing campaigns.

The Federal Election Commission, they argue, is a dysfunctional mess. Five of its six commissioners are serving despite expired terms and three of the six openly disagree with many of the fundamental campaign finance laws they are charged to enforce.

The groups, including the Campaign Legal Center, Democracy 21, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the League of Women Voters for the U.S., are trying to pressure President Obama to take action and appoint new FEC commissioners. The president campaigned on promises to bring more transparency to Washington and reform the campaign-finance system, but is turning a blind eye to the FEC’s inaction, the groups argue.

“Obama has been very eloquent about how corporations and wealthy people shouldn’t be a dominant force in our democracy,” said Lloyd Leonard of the League of Women Voters. “It’s time for him to step up and take the actions that are really, really needed.”

Craig Holman of Public Citizen, one of the groups promoting the petition, said members of the coalition had a very amicable meeting with the White House counsel’s office last week but left without making any real progress.

“We have repeatedly tried to get the administration moving” to no avail, said Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer. “We’re trying to go to the public now and get them involved because the stakes are enormous.”

Using an online-petition process set up by the White House on its website, the coalition is trying to get 25,000 signatures by Feb. 10. The administration has promised to provide a response to petitions garnering at least 25,000 signatures. The groups have set up a website, www.fixthefec.org, which directs people to the White House petition.

This year’s presidential race will be the first since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United case, which cleared the way for corporations and unions to spend unlimited funds to support individual campaigns. The ruling has given rise to the outside political action committees, known as super PACs, that are funding the flood of negative ads in the Republican primaries.

Proponents of less-restrictive campaign finance laws believe that more freedom to fund ads helps facilitate political debate. But advocates for more limits argue the super PACs can be particularly confusing for voters because the Citizens United case did not require the ads to disclose which group or individuals paid for them, and efforts in Congress to force disclosure failed.

Even though former House Speaker Newt Gingrich professes to support the Citizens United decision, he has complained bitterly about the veracity of a spate of negative ads that super PACs supporting Mitt Romney and others have launched against the Gingrich campaign — even though a super-PAC backing Mr. Gingrich has attempted to fight back in South Carolina.

“[T]ogether we survived, I think, the biggest onslaught in the history of the Iowa primary,” he said in his concession speech after coming in fourth in Iowa.

Despite the surge in political spending, the FEC’s enforcement activities are at a historic low, hobbled by deadlocked votes and inaction.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who had championed stricter campaign finance laws in the past, has been more reticent recently.

Still, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee on Thursday decried the rise of super PACs in the 2012 presidential election, calling them “terrible” in an interview with CBS News and predicting “huge scandals” involving the super PAC money this cycle.

“Citizens United — you can put the responsibility right at the doorstep of the Supreme Court — incredible naivete, ignorance of the real world of politics … it was outrageous, it was outrageous,” he said.

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