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Editorial: Federal Election Commission


The Senate needs to work on reviving the dormant Federal Election Commission, which hasn't met all year.

That's because the FEC - which is responsible for enforcing federal election laws - has four vacancies out of six seats. While Senate Republicans and Democrats play partisan games over President Bush's nominees, the FEC can't make a quorum.

In a presidential election year, one good-government group said, it's like playing the World Series without an umpire.

The withdrawal of nominee Hans von Spakovsky, whom the GOP had insisted be voted on in a package with other appointees, could clear the way for the Senate to fill the vacancies. But the White House is insisting that the Senate vote on a long list of other nominees, including those for the FEC.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) is right to insist that the FEC matter be settled first. It shouldn't have taken this long.

Beyond getting the FEC back to work, however, Congress needs to figure out a way to make the agency more effective. Even when the commission has a quorum, it has been all but powerless at upholding election laws.

For example, consider the 2004 presidential contest. Unregulated liberal groups such as America Coming Together, and conservative groups such as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, poured hundreds of millions of dollars into advertising on behalf of Democrat John Kerry and Republican George W. Bush, respectively.

Much of their spending violated election law because their major purpose was campaigning for or against particular candidates. That meant they should have been subjected to strict fund-raising limits, which they ignored.

The FEC determined that these groups violated election law - but its ruling came

three years

after the election.

The agency also imposed six-figure penalties against some of the groups. But according to the law, the FEC can impose such sanctions only if the guilty party agrees to it.

For these political advocacy groups, which spent a total of $500 million, the penalties amounted to the cost of doing business. Any deterrent was trivial.

Also, the agency is too politicized. President Bush decided not to renominate Chairman David Mason after the Republican had the temerity to question Sen. John McCain's enrollment in the public financing system after he'd taken out a complicated loan. For doing his job, Mason got the boot.

Pending legislation would give the FEC a permanent administrator with a fixed term and more enforcement powers. That would help take paralyzing partisan politics out of the agency, and give it more muscle to do its intended job.

Such a reorganization wouldn't take effect until after the November election. Congress needs to give the FEC some teeth.