The Agency That Would Not Die

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.