WASHINGTON – It was a noble idea, in theory.
The Federal Election Commission undertook an unprecedented experiment in democracy on Wednesday: It held an open-microphone hearing and invited any and all members of the public to come in unannounced and make their opinions known to the six commissioners.
In practice, however, the experiment turned the FEC hearing room into something of a karaoke bar. A few of the public “witnesses” could carry a tune, but overall it was much like being stuck with strangers who had consumed too much and were singing “Summer Nights,” “Don’t Stop Believin’?” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Off-key. Over and over.
There was the Ron Paul intern who read a Bible verse for the commissioners. “May I remind the commission that money itself is not the issue?” he testified. “The problem is, as the Bible states in 1 Timothy 6:10, the love of money is the root of all evil.”
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There was the man from the Tea Party Patriots who was concerned that the FEC was attempting to regulate everything, including “what we buy at restaurants, how much water we use even in the shower,” cholesterol and toasters. Also on hand were a witness introduced as “Ms. Boring” and a political science professor from St. Mary’s College who apparently made the hearing a class field trip, for she was followed at the witness table by three St. Mary’s students.
One young man told the commissioners: “Hi. Good morning. I’m James Campbell. I just want to say how cool it is to be speaking before you. I just moved to D.C. less than a month ago, and here I am speaking for the Federal” – he chuckled – “Election Committee, so that’s pretty cool.”
“We’re so glad to have you,” replied Chairwoman Ann Ravel.
The most gripping performance was turned in by a woman whose fiance died, she said, because of an antipsychotic drug that was on the market because of “dark money” in politics. “He lost 20 pounds in one month, couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, had confusions, delusions, paranoid delusions, hallucinations, hopelessness and despair – and when I say hopelessness and despair, it was as if he was in the pit of hell facing Satan himself,” she testified. “His blue eyes turned black. He had nosebleeds.”
“Thank you for your moving testimony,” Ravel said.
Democrats had forced the idea of the open hearing as a way for the masses to show their disgust with how the wealthy are buying our elections. Republican commissioners had resisted the session, and some 32,000 public comments before Wednesday’s session were running 3-to-1 in favor of tighter campaign finance regulations. But even the Democratic commissioners didn’t seem to have anticipated how the hearing would turn out.
The first several witnesses to line up were indeed opposed to the 1 percent purchasing elections. “We were carpet-bombed with negative ads,” said Glenn Conway of North Carolina. “The whole thing was sickening.”
A man identified by only one name, “Sai,” complained that if you ask a 501 (c)(4) where its contributions came from it “tells you to piss off.”
Commissioner Caroline Hunter grimaced.
But then came several witnesses worried that the FEC would try to regulate Facebook, YouTube and the like. Ravel assured them that there were no such plans. (Even if there were, the FEC is so toothless at the moment that it can’t regulate much of anything.)
This semi-constructive dialogue deteriorated quickly.
A woman with a heavy accent gave a difficult-to-follow homily about “fairness, freedom, justice, peace, humanity, productivity” and seemingly unrelated things. “To help you understand the social problem as I have identified,” she said, “I’ve given you six attachments, including my candidate statements. I have run for public office from local to federal since 1994, including U.S. Senate.”
A man who identified himself as a D.C. lawyer warned that “the United States is rapidly descending into a Koch brothers plutocracy!” The woman who had just testified about the antipsychotic drug applauded.
Next was Republican former Rep. Ernest Istook, who had served in Congress from Oklahoma, representing the Tea Party Patriots, who delivered a conspiratorial speech that wandered from health insurance to school lunches to electric bills.
“Can you wrap up please?” Ravel asked.
After Istook finally finished, the D.C. lawyer began to taunt him. “AstroTurf!” he said. “Started by the Koch brothers!”
“You don’t even know what you’re talking about,” Istook retorted.
“You’re with Sarah Palin, you psycho!” the lawyer said before storming from the room.
The hearing stood in recess.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.