Federal Election Commission discusses, then tables, proposal to speed up its enforcement process

At today’s public meeting of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), Commissioner Steven Walther, a self-identified independent who is typically part of the FEC’s Democratic bloc, introduced a measure that aims to speed up the agency’s enforcement process.

Currently, enforcement matters can linger for up to four years before the agency is required to take any action.

Once the matter is one year away from falling outside of the five-year statute of limitations, the FEC is required to create a plan that leads to a commission vote on whether there is probable cause to investigate within six months.

As Issue One recently detailed in its report “Busted & Broke: Why the Federal Election Commission doesn’t work,” the FEC has a significant backlog of enforcement cases, and that number has only gone up in recent years: In 2010, the agency had 100 open enforcement cases on its docket, but in 2018, it had 329 cases.

Walther cited the “current backlog of enforcement matters before the commission” as a reason for his proposed amendment, but he opted not to put the proposal up for a vote today because he said he knew the commission didn’t have the four votes necessary to adopt it.

He lamented that routinely losing the opportunity to decide on cases due to the statute of limitations is “really a travesty.”

For her part, FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, was sympathetic to Walther’s proposal and stressed that the agency’s Office of General Counsel is already both strained and understaffed: “They need more lawyers,” Weintraub said. “We haven’t had support for hiring more lawyers.”

Republican Commissioner Caroline Hunter said she preferred to delay a vote on Walther’s proposal for a few months because the head of the FEC’s enforcement division is relatively new and needs time to adjust to the position before the process changes. She also expressed that his views on the matter should be taken into account.

Walther’s amendment to FEC regulations would require that the commission take action within one year of receiving a complaint or referral. More specifically, under the proposal, the Office of General Counsel would be required to make a “substantive recommendation,” meaning a recommendation of whether the commission should open an investigation into the matter or dismiss the case, within nine months of receiving the complaint or referral. Within three months of receiving that recommendation, the commission would be required to take “substantive action,” meaning a vote on whether to proceed with enforcement actions. Should the Office of General Counsel not meet the nine month deadline, the commission would still be required to take substantive action within twelve months of receiving the complaint or referral.

With two vacancies on the six-member commission, unanimous agreement of the four current commissioners is required for the body to take action.