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What the FEC Deadlock on Coordination Means

Capitol Building at Night(Chet Susslin)

December 1, 2011

The Federal Election Commission deadlocked today on how closely Super PACs and members of Congress can work together on campaign ads without breaking the rules governing coordination between their campaigns and outside groups. 

The Republican-leaning American Crossroads Super PAC asked the FEC to provide guidance on the issue after Nebraska Democratic Party officials paid for an ad featuring Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson. Because the law largely prohibits campaigns and outside groups, including party committees, from coordinating their ads, Crossroads asked the FEC if it would be kosher for it to produce similar ads with GOP candidates. 
Faced with this important and controversial question, the FEC punted. The three Democrats on the committee voted in favor of an opinion that would have essentially banned the practice, while the three Republicans voted against it. The commission did nothing to make the murky issue of coordination any clearer. 
Still, even the non-answer will have an effect on the campaign landscape, making it much less likely that lawmakers will participate in ads closely coordinated with outside groups. Lawmakers have traditionally been leery of running afoul of the rules by working too closely with outside groups and today's ruling only reinforces how unsettled this area of campaign finance law is. 
Indeed, the Nebraska Republican Party has filed an FEC complaint against Nelson for coordinating with the state party on his ad campaign. It will be interesting to see how the FEC, particularly the Democratic commissioners who voted to prohibit the practice, decide that complaint. With a definitive ruling, the commissioners could finally provide some clarity, but don't bet on it. 
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