Government Shutdown May Mean No Disclosure Of Campaign Finance Before Special Elections


As the government shutdown continues to prevent all “non-essential” federal employees from doing their jobs, the Federal Election Commission’s operations have been particularly hard hit. With all but four of the agency’s employees furloughed until the shutdown’s end, voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and New Jersey may not have any opportunity to see who is contributing to and running ads in support of the candidates.

According to a Center for Public Integrity report, only the four currently-serving FEC Commissioners are considered essential. While parts of the agency’s electronic campaign finance disclosure system are automated, FEC Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub noted that no one will be around to resolve any glitches, computer crashes, or other parts of the disclosure process that require human action. “I don’t know how to personally post the reports — I’m a little out of my league there,” she noted, adding, “The public will have to go without disclosures until we open back up.”

Indeed a notice on the FEC website notes that candidates, party committees, and outside groups would not be required to file the ordinarily mandatory disclosures until after the shutdown ended. “Although the FEC’s e-filing system will remain online, at least for some period of time, FEC staff will not be able to monitor the system, and it is possible that technological problems may arise that would prevent filers from filing on time,” they advise. “Accordingly, the Commission will not pursue administrative fines against filers with reports due during the shutdown who fail to file on a timely basis, so long as they file within 24 hours after the Commission resumes operations.”

New Jersey voters will elect a new U.S. Senator in less than two weeks. Special elections for vacant U.S. House seats in three districts will be held in October and November. Normally, big last-minute contributions and large final-stretch expenditures would be reported quickly and posted online soon after. Without that transparency, voters will have no ability to see who is bankrolling the candidates and which outside interests are spending on their behalf — or to take that into account in making their choice.

Paul S. Ryan of the non-partisan Campaign Legal Center told ThinkProgress that this could have a serious impact on those rapidly approaching elections. “It’s important to get this information to the public –- and, as importantly, to journalists — in a very timely fashion, so folks can know whose trying to influence their vote on election day.”

Bob Biersack of the Center for Responsive Politics, who helped create the FEC’s disclosure system during his 30-year tenure at the agency, told ThinkProgress that while much of the system is automated and should work if filers attempt to submit their reports, “groups that have never filed anything before probably won’t be able to file, and anyone who has a question or a problem won’t be able to get an answer.” Worse, he notes, “the whole system will deteriorate as time goes on with no one to trouble shoot problems or do the normal operating and maintenance processes that are pretty important.”

Not everyone is upset about the shutdown. New Jersey Republican Senate nominee Steve Lonegan, a former operative for the Koch Brothers’ American for Prosperity, said Wednesday, “I want them to keep government shut down till October 16,” the day of his special election. Lonegan has already benefited from tens of thousands of dollars in outside spending.