While federal campaign finance regulators they are not known for their aggressionthings have it got so bad that they are practically begging Congress to give them more weapons to go after political scams—including a recurring donations scheme favored by Donald Trump that has unwitting supporters plucked during years.
But the tactic of recurring donations is just one issue the Federal Election Commission highlighted last week when it published its bill recommendationsthe legal wish list the agency sends to Congress each year.
It’s not the first time the FEC has filed many of those same proposals, including requests to close loopholes related to personal use of political funds, so-called “scam PACs” and fake donor schemes. The agency order Congress last year put more force into those laws, too, but lawmakers seem even more averse to the idea than the notoriously slow FEC, whose routine partisan stalemate over application I’ve got led critics to declare the agency “broken.”
Watchdog groups say Congress should pay attention.
Saurav Ghosh, director of federal campaign finance reform at the Campaign Legal Center, told The Daily Beast that these renewed applications indicate that the FEC “absolutely agrees that these are problems that need solving.”
“That deal is so unusual that it should send a message, but I’m not sure if there’s any change in the facts on the ground to prompt action,” Ghosh said. “It would be great if they took action before the 2024 election, because it’s fair to think that these issues will rear their heads again.”
Viki Harrison, director of constitutional conventions and dissent protection programs at Common Cause, said the FEC’s request should be a “wake-up call” to Congress.
“This is an ever-changing field, and the bad guys will always try to find a way around the law, but these are all really good policies, and Congress should have implemented them,” Harrison told The Daily Beast, adding that, after Despite several requests going unanswered, “it looks like they’re begging” for help.
The scam tactics identified in the draft application are indeed alive and well.
Take the tactic of recurring donations. Throughout the midterm elections, political committees continued to bombard potential donors with controversial fundraising requests with boxes pre-ticked for contributions to be automatically repeated. That is despite widespread previous reports that 2020 donors, many of them elderly, had complained that the language in those requests misled them, claiming they did not know at the time that they were authorizing repeat withdrawals. Many donors have said it is difficult to cancel the action either get your money back.
a 2021 New York Times research found that the tactic had “entraped” numerous Trump supporters during the 2020 election and its aftermath, even fooling some longtime political operatives. In total, Trump’s fundraising apparatus in 2020 returned more than $120 million, according to FEC data, while Joe Biden’s operation, which did not use the tactic, returned just $21 million. (Some Democrats have used pre-ticked boxes in the past.)
After that report, the FEC, which said in its 2021 request as well as this year’s draft proposal, which has received numerous complaints from misled donors, called on Congress to ban the use of pre-ticked boxes.
“Commission staff are regularly contacted by individuals who have discovered that recurring contributions to political committees have been charged to their credit card accounts or deducted from their checking accounts,” the draft says, as it did. A year ago. “In many cases, contributors do not remember having authorized recurring contributions. Often these taxpayers have tried unsuccessfully to cancel recurring transactions with the political committee before contacting FEC staff.”
Harrison said, “There’s a lot of public support on the recurring giving issue, where they absolutely target older donors and use algorithms to do that.”
Congress, however, has not acted. Nor do they seem to have many Republicans.
But Trump, the Republican National Committee, the Republican National Senatorial Committee, and numerous Republican candidates have continued to rip off 2022 midterm donors with those pre-ticked boxes. a daily beast research earlier this month it found that Republican donors who received refunds before the 2022 midterm were higher than the average for Republican or Democratic donors, and those averages were even higher among Trump taxpayers.
And so, like last year, the FEC’s draft application asks Congress to ban the practice and require more clarity with donors when seeking consent and withdrawing funds.
“No one wants this, on either side of the aisle,” Harrison said, noting that the government’s failure to address what she called “common sense” ethical concerns only further entrenches voter cynicism. .
He pointed to fraudulent PACs as a case where “common sense” hasn’t made much headway.
“Scam PACs” are political groups that take advantage of loopholes in campaign finance laws, telling voters they are raising money for a certain candidate or cause, when in fact that money goes almost entirely to campaign operators. PACs or, as the FEC puts it, “fundraising providers, direct mail providers, and consultants in which political committee officers appear to have financial interests.”
The FEC also acknowledges this “recurring pattern” and reminds Congress in its draft that it made this same request in 2017, 2018, and 2021. (In 2019 and 2020, the FEC lacked a quorum.)
While members of Congress have demonstrated bipartisan appetite to crack down on fraudulent PACs, federal legislative efforts have not advanced. That leaves enforcement to the Department of Justice and state and local authorities, who devote their limited resources only to the most obscene rapists. In the meantime, the FEC can only fulfill its mandate, which is currently not explicit enough to close the loophole.
“The divisiveness and the outright cynicism, it’s too much,” Harrison said. He likened the FEC’s enforcement division to a “graveyard” and said political finance plays “a huge role” in alienating voters because “people just expect someone to be incomplete.”
Nowhere did that idea crystallize as well as another issue addressed in the FEC’s draft: the personal use of political funds.
While the law prohibits candidates from using campaign money to pay for personal expenses, it does not explicitly extend that prohibition to other types of political committees, namely leadership PACs, which public officials and candidates routinely use as ” personal slush funds.
And again, Trump provides the most prominent example. His Save America leadership PAC has spent hundreds of thousands of donor dollars on his own properties, shelled out tens of thousands in “consulting” fees to a high-end fashion designer favored by his wife, and covered millions in legal fees for potential key witnesses. Against him.
Ghosh told The Daily Beast that the behavior of Trump’s leadership PAC, which in the wake of the Jan. 6 House investigation led to allegations of wire fraud, “helped make the issue more prominent.”
But Trump is not alone, Ghosh said. And the FEC makes the same comment to Congress, writing, as it did last year— that they have seen “a substantial number of cases where people with access to funds received by political committees have used those funds to pay their own personal expenses.”
The proposed remedy would extend the ban on campaign committees specifically to “any political committee,” which would account for leadership PACs like Save America.
But Harrison noted that the FEC is asking a hostile audience for a favor: elected officials, many of whom enjoy the personal benefits that their PAC leadership accounts provide.
“You are asking the people in power to voluntarily give up that power,” he said.
But there is at least one bright spot for reform advocates. The FEC’s draft enjoys “unanimous support” internally, according to Commissioner Dara Lindenbaum, a Biden appointee to the bipartisan commission who was elected chair earlier this month.
Lindenbaum told The Daily Beast that while the draft hasn’t passed, she, like her fellow Democrats and Republicans, supports the request “as written.”
Another Democratic commissioner, former Speaker Ellen Weintraub, echoed that support in a statement to The Daily Beast, calling for a tougher response to bad actors trying to rip off democracy.
“I hope Congress will heed the Commission’s unanimous request for stronger tools to combat defrauding donors who are simply trying to exercise their First Amendment rights,” Weintraub said.