- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Federal Election Commission finally agreed Thursday to recognize the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that unshackled corporations and unions to play a more active role in political advocacy.

While the 4-2 vote was chiefly symbolic, it signals the FEC — which has been virtually deadlocked on some key issues since the justices’ ruling — could be ready to move beyond those years of gridlock and find ways to clarify the law for political groups eager to test the boundaries of what they can do.

“Hopefully, today is the beginning of our ability to sit down and have reasonable discussions regarding all of those subjects,” said Ann M. Ravel, the FEC’s vice chairman, who provided the key vote to break the yearslong stalemate.

The FEC is divided between three Democratic-backed members and three GOP-backed commissioners, which means there must be some bipartisanship to obtain a majority vote. Ms. Ravel joined all three GOP-backed members, and braved criticism from her two fellow Democratic-backed members, to vote for the changes.

Ellen L. Weintraub, one of those Democratic-backed commissioners, said she wanted the proposal to force groups to disclose more about their sources of funding, which she said would push back against so-called “dark money” organizations.

“I think we could do a lot more than we are doing,” she said.

Thursday’s vote has the immediate effect of deleting about five pages of regulations from the books. Those regulations had prohibited corporations and labor unions from spending on advocacy in political campaigns. But they conflicted with the latest Supreme Court jurisprudence, which holds that corporations and unions have a much broader right to political speech under the First Amendment.

The FEC changes Thursday also clear up what corporations and unions are allowed to do beyond issue advertising. The new regulations make clear that they can issue voter guides and conduct voter drives that involve express advocacy, and can pay for them with corporate or union treasury funds.

Commission Chairman Lee E. Goodman said Thursday’s vote cleaned up the books, so someone who looks at the FEC’s regulations will no longer find them in conflict with the Constitution.

“It will be a good day for the Constitution, and it will be a good day for this commission to demonstrate that it has the power and the functionality to do that,” Mr. Goodman said.

Still to be seen is whether removing this roadblock frees the commission up to take on more controversies.

Part of Thursday’s deal was an agreement to hold a public hearing and solicit comments on what else the commission should do to carry out the Citizens United and McCutcheon v. FEC decisions from the Supreme Court.

Ms. Ravel said that will be the chance for critics of the current campaign finance system to make themselves heard.

But those critics said she made a mistake in joining with the GOP-backed commissioners.

“Perhaps the vice chair should have done her public listening tour before ripping up federal law, because I don’t think the public is going to tell her that it wants her to give wealthy donors additional avenues to buy still more influence in Washington,” said Larry Noble with the Campaign Legal Center.

He and other critics have complained about the proliferation of dark money groups since Citizens United. The Supreme Court has said Congress can require disclosure, but repeated efforts by Democrats to pass such a law have run into GOP opposition on Capitol Hill.

Republican-backed commissioners said if Congress wasn’t able to agree, the FEC shouldn’t step in and go beyond the legislature.

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