Opinion | Grabbing campaign finance from Michigan Secretary State a cynical ploy

Mike Staebler is a venture capitalist and retired lawyer from Ann Arbor

Dec. 21: That's a wrap! What bills passed, died in Michigan lame duck for the ages
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The Republican effort in Lansing to strip the Secretary of State of election oversight duties and entrust them to a commission modeled on the Federal Elections Commission is a cynical ploy.  

History shows that commissions of this kind generally act as a shield for wrongdoing, rather than as an impartial policeman. Let me give examples.

When President Ford appointed my father, Neil Staebler, as a commissioner on the newly created Federal Elections Commission in 1975 we were hopeful it would make a difference and help restore public confidence after the Watergate scandal.

It has been a failure – for the same reason the proposed state “Fair Political Practices Commission proposed under Senate Bills 1248-1252 will be. These bills take power away from the Secretary of State, which has long had responsibility for campaign finance law enforcement and has exercised that responsibility fairly, under Republican and Democratic secretaries.

The reason why this new, politically inspired commission will fail is simple: On controversial matters, the three Democrats and three Republicans typically vote as separate blocks, and gridlock prevails – allowing wrongdoers to walk away from their action.

Shortly after my father joined the FEC, Congress passed a statute authorizing corporations to form political action committees. The language was simple, clear and unambiguous. The FEC was asked to “interpret” the act and rule whether corporations could form PACs.  

Knowing his vote would be controversial he sought assurance from his lawyer son that he was reading it correctly. Dad joined with the three Republicans on the FEC in deciding that the statute actually meant what it said – that corporations could form PACs (this was in the 1970s – how far we have come.)

A number of Democrats were outraged, because they liked it when unions could gather members to make contributions, but were unhappy when Congress allowed corporations to take this action. When his term expired, at the insistence of one prominent Democrat, President Jimmy Carter did not reappoint him.

I have always been proud of my father, described by Theodore White in his book, “The Making of the President 1960,” as “one of the most moral men in American politics.”  But experience shows that you can’t count on people to behave as he did. The FEC regularly is deadlocked on important matters.

Closer to home is the old reapportionment commission created by our Michigan Constitution in 1963 and declared unconstitutional in 1996 because its guidelines violated the “one-man one-vote” requirements of the U.S. Constitution. The commission had three Democrats and three Republicans. Its three efforts to re-apportion our legislative and congressional districts proved fruitless, and always were resolved by litigation.

This November, by more than 60 percent majorities, Michigan voters decided they wanted to strengthen the integrity of Michigan elections by approving Proposals 2 and 3 to end gerrymandering and improve access and security in our electoral process. Proposal 2, which is now the redistricting reform portion of our state constitution, recognized the possibility of deadlock and included independents in the mix, creating an odd number of commissioners who will redraw legislative and congressional districts. The new reforms also provide additional tie-breaking mechanisms – the kind that are purposely lacking in the proposed “fair” practices commission.

The “Fair” Political Practices Commission would be a step backward. The inevitable gridlock among the commissioners would enable the political parties to block investigation of their own questionable practices.   

Especially troublesome is the requirement that the governor must appoint members from a list of only three names submitted by each party’s State Central Committee. This assures that commissioners will be highly responsive to the wishes of their party, and not the general public. I call on the legislature to vote no, and that failing, on Gov. Snyder to protect good government and veto the legislation.

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Edith Robbins
Fri, 12/14/2018 - 10:51am

I certainly hope that our Governor reads this article! His legacy will depend on his ability to do what is right for ALL the citizens and not just what Republicans want to push through at the last minute. This "Fair" Political Practices Commission is anything but FAIR!