The 2016 presidential election is expected to break every record on the books for political fundraising and spending — both the official campaign war chests that are somewhat transparent and the so-called dark money that is already pouring into groups that spend lavishly on candidates but keep their donors’ identities secret.
Though the election is more than a year away, several candidates and soon-to-be candidates have already been accused of campaign finance violations. But the head of the government’s main agency for investigating the claims and enforcing the laws on the books has publicly admitted that few violators will be brought to justice this election cycle.
“The likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim,” Federal Election Commission (FEC) chair Ann Ravel told the New York Times. “People think the F.E.C. is dysfunctional. It’s worse than dysfunctional…There is not going to be any real enforcement [for the 2016 election].”
According to new federal data released Tuesday, in the few instances where the FEC has investigated and brought action against campaign finance law breakers, the penalties are the lowest they have ever been. The agency fined all violators just under $600,000 in 2014, less than half of what they charged the year before and the lowest amount on record. Ravel points to the current gridlock at the agency — three Republicans and three Democrats who have split on just about every major vote and decision and have taken to blasting each other in the press.
Meanwhile, the possible electoral shenanigans are already piling up.
In January, the FEC accused GOP operative Karl Rove’s organization Crossroads GPS of violating its tax-exempt “social welfare” status by spending millions of dollars to support conservative candidates. The agency took no action against Crossroads GPS, meaning the group is still allowed to shield the identity of its donors.
Similar complaints have been made about Americans for Job Security, the American Action Network, and the American Future Fund, but the agency’s Republican members have blocked investigations into their activities.
In March, the Campaign Legal Center accused likely presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Martin O’Malley, Rick Santorum and Scott Walker of skirting federal campaign finance laws by soliciting unlimited money for their campaigns before formally launching them.
Bush in particular has taken this strategy to a whole new level, outsourcing much of his campaign to his “Right to Rise” Super PAC while appearing at dozens of their fundraisers, all before officially declaring his bid for the White House.
And just this week, in officially launching his campaign for president, Mike Huckabee jokingly asked supporters to donate “a million dollars” to him if they are able to do so. The Campaign Legal Center noted that this is well above the $2,700 individuals can donate per election to a candidate under current law. If he was asking them to donate to his Super PAC “Pursuing America’s Greatness,” which can accept unlimited contributions, that could be illegal coordination.
Candidates on the left have lamented the current fundraising bonanza as a corrosive force in American politics, and both Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have called for a constitutional amendment to address the impact of “unaccountable money” in politics. But bills to accomplish this have repeatedly failed in Congress, and face and even steeper uphill battle with the GOP controlling both the House and Senate.