At the outset of the FEC’s first open meeting of 2014, Commission Chair Goodman outlined several of the agency’s priorities for the year, including:
- Replacing the agency’s outdated IT system, which has been vulnerable to hacking attempts, most notably during the October 2013 government shutdown.
- Improving the accessibility of the campaign finance data available on the FEC website. Commissioner Goodman said that the Commission would seek public comment on proposed changes to various website functions.
- Clearing the Reports and Analysis Division’s case backlog. As reported by the Center for Public Integrity’s Dave Levinthal, nearly a quarter-million pages of committee reports have yet to be reviewed.
- Improving the Commission’s capacity to provide guidance to the regulated community, including through seminars and webinars.
Before ending his remarks, Commissioner Goodman stated that the agency’s top priority should be to “avoid deterring the exercise of First Amendment rights.”
For well over an hour, the Commission debated an advisory opinion on mobile ads, which was requested by Revolution Messaging, LLC. At issue was whether ads appearing on mobile devices should be exempt from the statutory requirement that all “public communications” that expressly advocate the election or defeat of a federal candidate must be accompanied by certain disclaimers.
The debate ended with no clear resolution. Commissioners Walther, Weintraub and Ravel all stressed the importance of providing some form of disclaimer in the ads, which would generally take the form of “banner ads” that stretch across a small portion of a smartphone screen. Commissioner Weintraub acknowledged that it would be impractical to include a full disclaimer in such an ad, but stressed that the ad could link to a webpage that would provide the disclaimer. Commissioners Goodman, Petersen and Hunter all argued that a blanket exemption should be provided for mobile phone ads, as they were effectively similar to bumper stickers and pins, which are exempt from the disclaimer requirements.
Eventually, Commissioner Weintraub suggested that she would consider granting the request if it provided more specifics as to the exact type of ad to which the exemption would apply. Stressing that the advisory opinion process is meant for questions about the legality of specific, individual transactions, she urged Revolution Messaging to amend its request to provide further details, such as whether a principal campaign committee or outside group would pay for the ad. Since the Commission appeared likely to deadlock on a 3-3 vote, Revolution Messaging decided to return at a subsequent meeting with an amended request.
Next, the Commissioners considered a string of four audit division recommendations on state and local party committees. The audit division found that all four committees failed to keep logs indicating the percentage of time that each of its employees spends on federal election activity. Final votes on two of the recommendations were postponed due to unanswered questions about the committees’ specific accounting practices; the other two recommendations, for the Vermont Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of South Carolina, were approved unanimously.
Finally, the Commission announced that it would seek comment on an upcoming interpretive rule on nationwide independent expenditures in presidential primary elections. Under current law, certain reporting requirements are triggered when a committee makes over $10,000 of independent expenditures within a given time frame in relation to a specific primary election. But the Commission does not provide guidance on how these thresholds should be calculated when the expenditures relate generally to the presidential nominating process, and not specifically to an upcoming primary in a particular state.
No other advisory opinion requests are pending at this time. No FEC rulemakings are currently open for comment. The next open meeting of the FEC is scheduled for January 30th, 2014.