Federal Election Commission (FEC)Despite being tasked with monitoring an election cycle in which $4 billion was spent, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) obtained penalties in only 34 cases, 86 percent fewer than in 2009. The toothless agency collected a paltry $860,000 in fines, a far cry from the $6.71 million in fines levied following the 2006 midterms. The troubling absence of enforcement has led Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) to suspect something more than incompetence may be involved.

“Clearly something nefarious has happened at the FEC. Obtaining penalties in only 34 cases is absurd. There is simply no logical explanation for such an important federal agency becoming such a toothless joke,” said CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan. “It’s time for President Obama to step up and decide that bad actors belong in B movies, not in the agency charged with protecting our elections and democracy.”

In just the past month, the toothless commission has chosen to ignore several high profile and blatant violations of election law. In Nevada, it inexplicably believed the parents of Senator John Ensign (R-NV), who claimed the $96,000 payoff to the family of their son’s mistress was a gift, despite ample evidence to the contrary. In the FEC’s defense, in the history of the world, no parent has ever lied to protect a child. Meanwhile in Louisiana, the commission willfully ignored clear evidence showing the U.S. Dry Cleaning Corporation illegally reimbursed employees for donations to Senator David Vitter (R-LA), with the understanding that Sen. Vitter show his gratitude for the donations by securing federal funding for the company.

“The FEC’s budget for 2010 was $66.5 million. What exactly is the American public getting for that money?” said Sloan. “The incoming Republican majority has promised to zealously attack wasteful government spending in the 112th Congress. The FEC in its current form would be a wonderful place to start.”

By law, no more than three of its six commissioners can belong to the same political party and the FEC cannot act on anything unless at least four commissioners agree. Because of this, the commission is frequently deadlocked on enforcement matters. Commissioners are appointed on a rotating basis for six year terms, meaning – at least in theory – that two seats are open for appointment every two years. It doesn’t get past the theoretical level, however, because in reality, commissioners don’t leave until their replacements have been confirmed. Half of the current commissioners have overstayed their terms.