The number of political contributions I made this year may match or exceed all the money I donated to politicians in my lifetime. Some of you may be nodding your head. You did the same thing. After the election, requests from politicians and PACs slowed significantly but kept trickling. Lately, it’s about the Georgia senatorial election, and one more time, “the sky is falling.” President Trump has raised over $200 million since he lost the election, leaving me wondering where donations go after politicians are sent home. Remember the line from the movie Jerry Maguire? “Show me the money?” Well, we should know where and how our money is spent.
What happens to the money that remains after salaries, rent, poster boards, and doughnuts are paid for? It’s like the cash I had left in the grocery envelope on the last day of the month. Perhaps I should have bought the family Ben and Jerry’s ice cream instead of the generic brand. “Dad expects you to use all the money to feed us,” my kids would have argued. But only I had access to this information. They had no idea how much money dad gave their mom or how she spent it. Politicians with money surplus, why didn’t they hire additional people or spend more on campaign ads, fliers, and rallies? Instead of the stiff cotton shirts we buy to wear their name blazed across our chest. They could have chosen soft cotton with our comfort in mind. So, what do they do with what’s left?
After Watergate, Congress created the Federal Election Committee (FEC), an independent regulatory agency with six board members. Four votes are needed to take official action, enforcing regulations, or approving audit reports. No more than three members (commissioners) can belong to the same political party. The FEC’s purpose is to make sure political committees and candidates follow federal finance law. The FEC is our eyes and ears, “the cop on the street,” not only making sure PACs and politicians don’t misuse money we’ve donated but that foreigners are not influencing our Democracy with their donations. Every Thursday, meetings are streamed live online.
Following the guidelines for unspent donations, the main rule is not to spend it for personal use, college tuition, country club memberships, or to pay off your house. They can donate it to charities. Not a popular choice. Another option is to move the fund to a political party. There is a $2000 limit donating to individual candidates. The FEC also allows one to do nothing, just let the money sit and grow. “You’ll find reports of people leaving thousands or sometimes millions in the bank collecting interest for years,” Deborah D’Souza from Investopedia explains on Civic 101. When reporters ask politicians how they plan to spend the money, they say they’re not sure yet. It’s like my kids were not sure if they cleaned their bedroom. Politicians have 60 days to decide, refund or keep. Refunding us our money rarely happens, if ever.
There is one more thing we need to know, it’s the loophole in the FEC guidelines, a gap the size of a football stadium. Politicians can choose to transfer our money to what’s called a Leadership PAC, where good times roll. Selecting this option, they can use our money for travel, concert tickets, dinners, country club fees, gourmet meals for a kitty cat, etc. Politicians use their leadership PACs liberally and generously. Meeting with a potential sponsor, “Mr. Koch, with your generous donation to my Leadership PAC, the least I can do is pick up the tab for lunch.” If it’s a truthful politician, he would say, “Please, Mr. Koch, let my donors pick up the tab.” So like my kids whose mother didn’t share what remained in the grocery envelope, donors remain clueless.
Signing up to be notified of the FEC’s (streamed) weekly meeting, I find out the FEC board had not met since August 2019 when long-serving Republican appointee, Matthew Petersen, favored less regulation of the election process and resigned without an explanation. This leaves the board with only three members, one Republican, one Democrat, and one Independent. With three, they lack a quorum to vote. Have you ever had a boss with absolutely no authority? Or a teacher with no classroom control methods, like calling parents or sending the rule-breaking offender to the principal’s office? The FEC has no teeth to bite with, so unethical politicians enjoy free reign with our money as long as they say the money is for “fundraising.” Where are the other two? Good question. Presidents and Congress have allowed those seats to remain vacant for years.
For now, the remaining commissioners are doing what they can, and part of that is the Federal Election Commission’s transparency function. Politicians and PACs still have to file paperwork of how much they have raised and spent. You can go to the FEC website and see if your neighbor donated to Trump or Biden and other politicians. Or, search for all donors in your zip code. Efforts to keep politicians in line is on ice until a president nominates new commissioners and the Senate acts. Trump nominated a commissioner two years ago who still waits for a call from Congress.
Democracy requires an informed and active citizenry. Congressman John Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words and sermons were to educate, inspire, and mature citizens. John Lewis: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.” King: “We need leaders not in love with money, but in love with justice. Not in love with publicity. But in love with humanity.” For now, the FEC has no teeth. But we, the voters, have lots of teeth, and that’s something to chew on.