Why did Congress create the Federal Election Commission?

It was clear long before Watergate that campaign finance law would not work well without a way to enforce it. The 1910 disclosure law worked fairly well for presidential elections even without a formal enforcement agency because presidential elections always get more attention from the media and the public. And before the FECA, they also got the attention of congressional committees that were appointed to look into their financing. The result was that party, candidate, and other political committees that were active in presidential elections regularly filed reports, and the major newspapers covered the highlights of those reports.

The 1910 law did not work well for congressional campaigns, which get much less media and public attention. That law made the Clerk of the House responsible for enforcing disclosure requirements, but it gave that officer little real authority. William Tyler Page, who was the Clerk in 1924, explained how poorly the law worked without real enforcement: "The filing of these statements has been regarded as more or less perfunctory... . In a great many cases no receipts or expenditures are reported at all because the candidate swears that there has been none, and which, of course, must be taken as accurate. . Now this law has no teeth in it."5

Congress heard plenty of suggestions for how to put some teeth in the law during the next fifty years, and it did strengthen disclosure somewhat in the 1971 FECA. The Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate continued to administer the law for House and Senate elections under the 1971 FECA. But Congress added the comptroller general as a third "supervisory officer" to take responsibility for presidential elections. The comptroller general headed the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office), and as a presidential appointee with a fixed term of office he was more insulated from political pressure than the House and Senate officers were.6

The 1971 disclosure law was an improvement, but it was still weak by today's standards. Political scientist Alexander Heard predicted in 1960 that Congress would not turn enforcement authority over to a genuinely independent agency "unless some startling scandal appears as a catalyst."7 He was too optimistic. Watergate was the catalyst that persuaded Congress to create the FEC. But Congress made the FEC dependent, not independent. Even after Watergate, Congress wanted to be its own enforcement agency.

 
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