The Feckless F.E.C., Rebuked

In an era of unbridled campaign spending, the Federal Election Commission has consistently and shamefully ducked its responsibilities. It has made it possible for tax-exempt “social welfare” organizations to operate as partisan attack machines. And it has dismissed complaints and failed to police this rise of “dark money” from hidden donors that is pouring into elections.

While most campaign professionals treat the F.E.C. as an impotent joke, a Federal District Court judge shed light this week on the commission’s dereliction. Judge Christopher Cooper ordered the commission to reconsider its dismissal of complaints against two conservative groups that claimed to meet the nonpartisan requirement for tax-exempt “social welfare” agencies, even while they financed television ads in 2010 targeting Democratic candidates.

“It blinks reality,” Judge Cooper ruled, questioning how the Republicans on the commission found a $1 million attack ad to be in compliance with the law. In the ads, three Democratic lawmakers were cited by name, charged with voting to provide “Viagra for convicted sex offenders” and “free health care for illegal immigrants” because they supported President Obama’s health care reform program. The ads called for fixing this problem in the voting booth.

The complaint to the F.E.C. — which was dismissed in a 3-to-3 vote that split the Republican and Democratic members — was brought by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a campaign watchdog group. The complaint pointed out that the ad sponsors were not engaged in “social welfare” issue activities, and should therefore be required by the F.E.C. to disclose their donors under the election law. American Action Network, an outside group aligned with the House speaker, Paul Ryan, insisted it operated within the law in its “center-right policy advocacy” and that its message should not be considered a partisan attack on the Democrats.

Judge Cooper’s ruling is further evidence that the F.E.C. is paralyzed and should be replaced by a new agency. Reform legislation proposed by Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico, and Representative David Price, Democrat of North Carolina, would create a commission with five, not six, members appointed by the president. The fifth would be a genuinely nonpartisan election law expert, chosen from a list selected by retired judges and other legal specialists. If members from the two major parties split 2-against-2, the fifth member could settle the issue.

This proposal may have no immediate chance in a Congress obsessed with campaign fund-raising. But voters should be demanding it, if Big Money in politics is ever to be reined in.