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FEC Invites Comment On Campaign Finance Laws At First Public Hearing


Now, what I'm about to tell you is not exactly headline news. The Federal Election Commission is holding a public hearing tomorrow. What is surprising is that the hearing really is public. Thousands of Americans have already written to the commission with strong opinions about the role money plays in politics, and with so much interest, tomorrow's meeting could be standing room only. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Most witnesses at FEC hearings arrive by cab or even by foot. Susan Grogan is coming from the far tip of Southern Maryland - 70 miles on a rural highway. It'll be her first time appearing at the FEC.

SUSAN GROGAN: Why now? I think because I've gotten a little fed up.

OVERBY: Fed up, she says, with the big, unregulated and sometimes secret contributions that flow into congressional and presidential elections. Grogan studies election law in her job as a political science professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland. It's a public college with 1,900 students.

GROGAN: I've watched the - I guess evisceration is the best way to put it - of campaign finance law in recent years.

OVERBY: She's referring to the wild growth in unregulated money, thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, other court rulings and sympathetic actions by Congress and the FEC itself. So last October, when the commission posted an invitation for people to send in comments on several issues...

GROGAN: I started writing the commentary.

OVERBY: And joining her in the 10,000-word document were two students and a former student from her Parties and Elections class.

GROGAN: One of them suggested a couple of paragraphs that went into the final comment. I think the others were a little shy.

OVERBY: Grogan also has something to admit.

GROGAN: That I did end up in some scolding of the commission in the commentary.

OVERBY: Although the FEC didn't get a record number of comments, it got a lot.

ANN RAVEL: Thirty-two-thousand - over 32,000 comments.

OVERBY: This is FEC chair Ann Ravel, one of the three Democratic appointees. There are also three Republican appointees. The commission was designed to be vulnerable to partisan deadlock. Ravel is trying to refocus the FEC's attention. She says it caters too much to lawyers and consultants for politicians.

RAVEL: I believe that the client base is the American public because we have to serve their interests.

OVERBY: Like the comment, the hearing is part of that outreach. It won't have the star power that comedian Stephen Colbert brought to the FEC in 2011 when he came for a ruling on his super PAC. After the meeting he went out in front of the FEC Building and held an impromptu fundraiser.


STEPHEN COLBERT: I am a super PAC, and so can you.

OVERBY: Now, Ravel says extra seats are being squeezed into the little hearing room and two overflow spaces are being set up. Tomorrow, there will be extensive testimony from campaign professionals.

RAVEL: But also from members of the public who have a really acute interest in the issues that the FEC oversees.

OVERBY: Republican Commissioner Caroline Hunter has doubts. She says the written comments tend to address issues that the FEC isn't considering or issues that involve First Amendment concerns beyond the agency's jurisdiction.

CAROLINE HUNTER: We're not likely to do anything that we perceive to be contrary to statute or the Constitution.

OVERBY: And Hunter doubts the hearing will change things at the FEC.

HUNTER: Probably not because a lot of the comments that I anticipate hearing will be about things that are more properly before Congress.

OVERBY: The commission has scheduled an extra-long, open-ended hearing day. The public is supposed to get at least two hours of speaking time. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.