The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is an independent regulatory agency that was founded in 1975 by the United States Congress to regulate the campaign finance legislation in the United States. It was created in a provision of the 1974 amendment to the Federal Election Campaign Act. It describes its duties as "to disclose campaign finance information, to enforce the provisions of the law such as the limits and prohibitions on contributions, and to oversee the public funding of Presidential elections."
The Commission is made up of six members, who are appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the United States Senate. Each member serves a six-year term, and two seats are subject to appointment every two years. By law, no more than three Commissioners can be members of the same political party, and at least four votes are required for any official Commission action.
The chairmanship of the Commission rotates among the members each year, with no member serving as chairman more than once during a six-year term. However, a member may serve as chairman more than once by serving beyond the six-year mark if no successor is appointed; for example, Ellen Weintraub was chairman in both 2003 and 2013.
Although the Commission's name implies broad authority over U.S. elections, in fact its role is limited to the administration of federal campaign finance laws. It enforces limitations and prohibitions on contributions and expenditures, administers the reporting system for campaign finance disclosure, investigates and prosecutes violations (investigations are typically initiated by complaints from other candidates, parties, watchdog groups, and the public), audits a limited number of campaigns and organizations for compliance, administers the presidential public funding programs for presidential candidates and, until recently, nominating conventions, and defends the statute in challenges to federal election laws and regulations.
The FEC also publishes reports filed by Senate, House of Representatives and Presidential campaigns that list how much each campaign has raised and spent, and a list of all donors over $200, along with each donor's home address, employer and job title. This database also goes back to 1980. Private organizations are legally prohibited from using these data to solicit new individual donors (and the FEC authorizes campaigns to include a limited number of "dummy" names as a measure to prevent this), but may use this information to solicit Political Action Committees. The FEC also maintains an active program of public education, directed primarily to explaining the law to the candidates, their campaigns, political parties and other political committees that it regulates.
Critics of the FEC, including campaign finance reform supporters such as Common Cause and Democracy 21, have complained that it is a classic example of regulatory capture where it serves the interests of the ones it was intended to regulate. The FEC's bipartisan structure, which was established by Congress, renders the agency "toothless." Critics also claim that most FEC penalties for violating election law come well after the actual election in which they were committed. Additionally, some critics claim that the commissioners tend to act as an arm of the "regulated community" of parties, interest groups, and politicians when issuing rulings and writing regulations. Others point out, however, that the Commissioners rarely divide evenly along partisan lines, and that the response time problem may be endemic to the enforcement procedures established by Congress. To complete steps necessary to resolve a complaint – including time for defendants to respond to the complaint, time to investigate and engage in legal analysis, and finally, where warranted, prosecution – necessarily takes far longer than the comparatively brief period of a political campaign.
At the same time, however, other critics, such as former FEC Chairman Bradley A. Smith and Stephen M. Hoersting, Executive Director of the Center for Competitive Politics, criticize the FEC for pursuing overly aggressive enforcement theories, and for infringing on First Amendment rights of free speech.
Critics of the Commission also argue that this structure regularly causes deadlocks on 3-3 votes, but others argue that deadlocks are actually quite rare, and typically based on principle rather than partisanship. Since 2008, 3-3 votes have become more common at the FEC. From 2008 to August 2014, the FEC has had over 200 tie votes, accounting for approximately 14 percent of all votes in enforcement matters.Joan D. Aikens – April 1975 – September 1998 (reappointed May 1976, December 1981, August 1983 and October 1989).
Thomas B. Curtis – April 1975 – May 1976.
Thomas E. Harris – April 1975 – October 1986 (reappointed May 1976 and June 1979).
Neil O. Staebler – April 1975 – October 1978 (reappointed May 1976).
Vernon W. Thomson – April 1975 – June 1979; January 1981 – December 1981 (reappointed May 1976).
Robert Tiernan – April 1975 – December 1981 (reappointed May 1976).
William L. Springer – May 1976 – February 1979.
John Warren McGarry – October 1978 – August 1998 (reappointed July 1983 and October 1989).
Max L. Friedersdorf – March 1979 – December 1980.
Frank P. Reiche – July 1979 – August 1985.
Lee Ann Elliott – December 1981 – June 2000 (reappointed July 1987 and July 1994).
Danny L. McDonald – December 1981 – January 2006 (reappointed in July 1987, July 1994 and July 2000).
Thomas J. Josefiak – August 1985 – December 1991.
Scott E. Thomas – October 1986 – January 2006 (reappointed in November 1991 and July 1998).
Trevor Potter – November 1991 – October 1995.
Darryl R. Wold – July 1998 – April 2002.
Karl J. Sandstrom – July 1998 – December 2002.
David M. Mason – July 1998 – July 2008.
Bradley A. Smith – May 2000 – August 2005.
Michael E. Toner – March 2002 – March 2007. (by recess appointment on March 29, 2002, confirmed to full term 2003)
Robert D. Lenhard – January 2006 – December 31, 2007. (by recess appointment on January 4, 2006)
Hans A. von Spakovsky – January 2006 – December 31, 2007. (by recess appointment on January 4, 2006)
Cynthia L. Bauerly – June 2008 – confirmed June 24, 2008 for a term expiring on April 30, 2011 Resigned effective February 1, 2013
Donald F. McGahn II – June 2008 – September 2013.