In an interview with the New York Times, FEC chairwoman Ann Ravel said that her agency would not be able to control campaign abuses in 2016. Quote:
“The likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim. I never want to give up, but I’m not under any illusions. People think the FEC is dysfunctional. It’s worse than dysfunctional.”
There are six FEC commissioners—three Republicans and three Democrats. The Times describes this people as “perpetually locked in 3 to 3 ties” along party lines, probably due to fundamental disagreements over the agency’s proper function. Democratic members believe it should investigate campaign finance abuses. Republicans believe it should, um, not. “Congress set this place up to gridlock,” said Republican commissioner Lee Goodman. “This agency is functioning as Congress intended. The democracy isn’t collapsing around us.”
It seems dubious that Congress created the FEC so that it would not enforce election regulations, but okay. The disagreement among commissioners over whether the agency has collapsed or is in fact doing just what it should reflects a peculiar problem with the two-party system in contemporary government.
The Republican party is ideologically opposed to regulation. This is a political position that must negotiate with Democratic positions, but it also produces an incentive not to negotiate. A regulatory agency that does not function is remarkably similar to a government that has decided not to regulate. Republicans in the FEC could negotiate with Democrats to pursue a compromise version of both parties’ goals, or they could deadlock every vote and default to the agency they want.
In Congress, this problem has been well documented—at least since Mitch McConnell famously announced that his caucus’s primary goal was to defeat the president’s agenda. As a position in a negotiation, “we want the opposite of what you want” is untenable. But “we object to all functioning of this body” achieves the same result, if your opponents have articulated a positive agenda. Much has been made of our recent spate of do-nothing Congresses, which are the inevitable outcomes of a two-party system in which one party believes the government should only provide for the common defense.
If the GOP were united behind specific plans—even if those plans were diametrically opposed to what Democrats wanted—the two parties could trade goals and do something. But the fundamental tenet of contemporary conservatism is that the government does too much. Their goal is for the government to do much less, and they don’t need to control Washington to achieve that. They just need to break it.