Chances are you’ve never heard of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS) — chairman of the House Subcommittee on Elections — had this to say about the tiny and anonymous federal agency:
This is a classic example of what President Reagan said, that there’s nothing closer on Earth to eternal life than a temporary government program.
The Election Assistance Commission once was categorized as a “temporary” agency, authorized to operate for only three years. Nine years later, the story of this hapless agency has become a fascinating Washington tale of do-gooder intentions run amok, politics trumping good management, out-of-control spending, and federal programs expanding even after their mission had vanished. The EAC is an object lesson of how difficult it will be to reduce any federal spending and to downsize or eliminate federal programs.
The creation of the Election Assistance Commission dates back to the red-hot political battle that followed the 2000 presidential election. Angry liberal groups demanded the creation of a new program to oversee federal elections, which historically has been a state responsibility.
The EAC was intended to modernize state election equipment across the country. In 2002, the “Help America Vote Act” was passed, creating the agency but giving it a strict limit of three years of existence. To help states upgrade their equipment, the EAC doled out a staggering $4 billion.
The commission distributed its allotted money and completed its studies. Yet it is still operating in 2011 — an agency without a mission with nearly 50 full-time federal employees. Its budget has doubled to $18 million, without having anything to do. As a testament to its uselessness, in the last two fiscal years President Obama’s budget officials “zeroed out” its core grant-making budget.
Further, the commission cannot do business, as it doesn’t have a quorum of at least three commissioners. Two of the commissioners — both Democrats –have resigned, one of them under a political cloud.
Even by Washington standards, the EAC has been a spectacular mess. But that hasn’t stopped the agency from continuing on — or living lavishly. Half of its staff earn six-figure salaries. It is top heavy, with two of every three employees serving as executives. Only one out of three actually work on real programs.
Government has tried to shut the EAC down. Twice, the nation’s secretaries of state have passed resolutions calling for it to close its doors. The last resolution was renewed in 2010.
Today, there is a new initiative by Congress to abolish it — but liberal organizations are rallying. House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer recently raised the specter of another Florida debacle as a reason to keep it in place. He warned:
Abolishing the EAC would be an invitation to repeat mistakes that blemished our democracy in 2000.
However, it appears the combination of its own track record and current lack of a mission may simply doom it this time. A review of its record over nine years shows a remarkable history of failure.
By far the most important failure is that of hiring simple competency. Its appointed commissioners knew little about elections: of nine commissioners who have served there, only two ever served as election officials.
Founded as a non-partisan body, it has been accused of altering election research and charged with waging political partisanship. It ran afoul of the law, having admitted to violating civil service and discrimination laws — as well as the First Amendment.
Its assistance to states has been ridiculed by Democratic and Republican state officials. And it has been so financially mismanaged that its outside auditor quit.
In 2005, the influential National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) — which represents all state election officials — called for it to be phased out following the 2006 election. The vote was overwhelming and bipartisan.
Leading the charge was the dean of the election world, New Hampshire’s legendary Democrat William Gardner. For decades, Gardner has supervised the New Hampshire primary, the nation’s first presidential primary. Five years later, in 2010, the NASS repeated its call for the EAC to be abolished.
Rep. Harper now is taking the initiative to put a final end to the agency. He has introduced legislation to close it down permanently and to transfer its few remaining election duties to existing federal agencies. Harper told PJM:
This is an entity that has no business staying in business.
EAS spending confirms what many Americans fear about the hundreds of departments and agencies that dot our federal landscape. Looking under the hood is a revealing experience.
At a 2009 hearing of the House Appropriations Committee, Congress learned the commission not only failed its only audit, but that the records were such a mess they could not continue it. The audit was conducted by the national auditing firm of Clifton Gunderson, LLP under the direction of the agency’s Office of Inspector General. The IG told Congress in November 2008:
The EAC was unable to provide sufficient appropriate evidence to allow Clifton Gunderson to conduct its audit.
The IG further noted that the commission had failed to meet 20 of 29 internal controls for acceptable financial and management operations.
Even though at the time it was a small agency with less than 25 employees, the auditor found it was unable to account for $475,000 in travel vouchers. Another expenditure jumped out for the auditors: the agency had paid out nearly $7,000 for t-shirts for its employees — nearly $90 for each shirt.
Both Democrat and Republican state election officials agreed that the agency has been completely ineffective on the ground. Last month Gardner heaped scorn on the commission — he said its “best practices” guidelines were useless. In testimony before the House Administration Committee, he said it “is not something I would consider as being of value to my state.”
The commission’s technical election committee — the only real help the agency could offer states — has met only once since 2007. While it has published many papers, it still lacks any process for peer review of any of them. In 2008, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), the former chairwoman of the House Administration Committee, noted that its research department had been “criticized or accused of altering research.”
Another scandal involved bare-knuckle politics at the seemingly non-partisan commission. A Democratic commissioner torpedoed the hiring of a new general counsel because he once was associated with Republicans. Democratic Commissioner Rosemary Rodriguez got her fellow Democrat to vote against his hiring, even though its executive director had approved him and sent out a letter of employment.
As later admitted by the commission in a press release:
The agency is in violation of civil service laws and regulations prohibiting discrimination based on political affiliation and discrimination based on non-merit grounds.
Such action could also violate the appointee’s Constitutional First Amendment right to freedom of association.
The commission settled with an undisclosed settlement to the hiree: a source told PJM that it was a “substantial” amount of money. The discovery of partisanship in part forced Rodriguez to leave the commission in early 2009. She took a job as an aide to Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO).
Rep. Harper’s bill HR 672 may come up for a markup later this month. Will Congress and the administration really cut the program? As Harper said to me:
If we can’t eliminate the EAC, we can’t eliminate anything.