On Monday, Jeb Bush announced his candidacy for the presidency. Following speakers and performers, between claps and cheers, he stood at the podium and declared, “I’m running for President of the United States. I will run with heart. I will run to win.” While many are pleased that this qualified candidate entered the race, many are skeptical about the electability of this candidate who has “violated campaign finance regulations.”
In December, Bush stated that he was exploring a possible candidacy for the presidential election in 2016. His Right to Rise Leadership PAC, SuperPAC, and non-profit organization were formed soon after. These organizations immediately received overwhelming contributions and that resulted in the PAC limiting contribution amounts. Bush held fundraisers in 15 states, and Puerto Rico, with some event tickets costing as much as $100,000 per person. Recent reports have estimated that Bush and his organizations have accumulated approximately $90 million.
These contributions will inevitably lead to doubts about Bush’s honesty, respect for FEC rules, and sense of accountability. The Federal Election Commission regulations specify that, whether or not a person has verbally announced candidacy for the presidential election, a person who receives contributions or makes expenditures of more than $5 thousand has officially announced candidacy. The FEC also requires all candidates to disclose their campaign contributions.
In the case of Bush, the moment his PAC, SuperPAC and non-profit, began accepting contributions he was a presidential candidate. What has caused skepticism is the fact that he did not disclose any campaign contributions before he announced his own candidacy on June 15, 2015.
The media now voices its doubts and throws its criticisms, asking, “He violated regulations, right?”
Federal Election Commission
Problematically, the media throws its criticism in the wrong direction. The focus should shift from Jeb Bush to the Federal Election Commission.
Last month, the Commission chairwoman Ann M. Ravel expressed concern that the FEC will be too “dysfunctional” to enforce its regulations in the upcoming election. She pointed to its divide along party lines and gridlock to explain its difficulty in reaching consensus on the enforcement of specific regulations against specific candidates. She recommends that an easier strategy will be to publicize information, leaving the public to condemn any wrongdoing.
Contributions are a form of speech. However, it is necessary to place clear and understandable regulations on this form of speech, it is necessary to place clear, and ensure responsive, unbiased enforcement.
While much improvement is needed, the FEC has taken some positive steps forward. Earlier this year, the prosecution and conviction of Tyler Harber was the first criminal prosecution for illegal coordination between a political action committee and a campaign. Tony Herman, former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission, commented, “Let’s just say this is a surprise.” He continued to explain that this progress may “signal an effort by prosecutors to try to fill the gap resulting from what’s perceived as a lack of FEC enforcement.”
If the FEC cannot enforce their regulations, Watchdog groups including the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 have suggested that a lack of enforcement from the FEC should prompt a redistribution of enforcement responsibilities to the Department of Justice. These groups have requested that Attorney General Loretta Lynch appoint a counsel to address the various surfacing campaign finance controversies. Though it is unlikely this redistribution will occur, causing such drastic change in the campaign finance system, it is an interesting suggestion. The Department of Justice may be more responsive and, given that its members are not by default selected along party lines, less biased. However, the Department can only do so much with regulations that are unclear and a concept that is highly controversial.
The FEC must decide between investigating the campaign finance controversies of Jeb Bush and many more or losing all legitimacy.