Some Assembly Republicans are looking to Washington, D.C., for inspiration to overhaul Wisconsin's elections and ethics agency, the Government Accountability Board.
But critics say the model those lawmakers cite, the Federal Election Commission, is not one of effective campaign oversight.
Rather, they say, it's one of gridlock and dysfunction.
"It's like setting up a disaster-relief agency and saying you're going to use the FEMA handling of Hurricane Katrina as your model," said Larry Noble, former general counsel to the Federal Election Commission. Noble now is senior counsel at a nonpartisan advocacy group, the Campaign Legal Center.
Assembly Republicans such as Rep. Joe Sanfelippo say they’re looking to the commission, or FEC, as a model for overhauling Wisconsin's Government Accountability Board, or GAB. Republicans who control the Legislature have said for months that a major shakeup of the GAB is in the offing but haven't yet unveiled their proposal to do so.
Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, and other Assembly Republicans -- including Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, named by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos as the lawmaker who will shepherd a GAB overhaul bill -- want to change the GAB to have the same structure as the FEC. The federal commission has six members, three Democrats and three Republicans.
The GAB is nonpartisan, made up of six former judges appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.
But Republicans such as Knudson and Sanfelippo say the board's nonpartisan label is a farce. They say it's biased toward Democrats, citing examples such as the board's assistance to county prosecutors in the John Doe investigation of alleged coordination between Gov. Scott Walker's gubernatorial campaign and conservative outside groups in the 2012 recall election. That investigation was ended by the state Supreme Court in July.
Sanfelippo, writing in a recent op-ed that ran in the State Journal and other outlets, said shifting the GAB to an FEC model would "encourage greater accountability and professionalism."
“If it works for the Federal Election Commission, there’s no reason it won’t for Wisconsin as well,” Sanfelippo wrote.
The problem, Noble and other good-government advocates say, is the FEC doesn't work and hasn't for years -- at least in terms of overseeing and enforcing federal campaign finance laws. Its chairwoman, Ann Ravel, a Democratic appointee to the commission, earlier this year called it “worse than dysfunctional.”
The problem? The commission routinely deadlocks on 3-3, party-line votes. That has left it unable to enforce federal law and rein in abuses related to campaign spending, Ravel said.
Rick Hasen, a national elections law expert and professor at the University of California-Irvine, said any effort to change the GAB to mirror the FEC likely is an attempt to "hobble" the board. Hasen added that the current GAB is regarded by many elections experts in other states as a model, due to its nonpartisan makeup.
"The idea that you'd move from the gold standard to perhaps the most dysfunctional agency in Washington, D.C., is laughable," Hasen said. "If you want to be obstructionist and you think that there shouldn't be regulation, then this is the way to go."
Sanfelippo says the "national model" description of the GAB doesn't mesh with its recent actions, including its cooperation in the John Doe investigation or its handling of the 2012 recall election. The GAB was created in 2007 in response to replace two separate agencies -- a model that Knudson has suggested he may want to return to.
"If it's such a national model, how come nobody else is doing it?" Sanfelippo said. "It was well-intentioned when they set this thing up, but it has been an epic failure."