House panel OKs ending Election Assistance Commission
WASHINGTON — A House committee approved legislation Tuesday to shut down the federal commission set up more than 10 years ago to help states improve their election systems.
"This agency needs to go,'' said Mississippi Republican Rep. Gregg Harper, who introduced the bill to eliminate the Election Assistance Commission. "This agency has outlived its usefulness and to continue to fund it is the definition of irresponsibility.''
The House Administration Committee approved the legislation by voice vote. This marks Harper's third attempt in four years to close the bipartisan independent commission, which he called a "bloated bureaucracy.''
It is not clear when the full House will vote on the measure. Harper said he's working to persuade a senator to introduce a companion measure in that chamber.
The chairwoman of the Administration Committee, Republican Rep. Candice Miller of Michigan, called the Election Assistance Commission "a prime example of waste shielded by bureaucracy."
She said the agency no longer helps voters or election officials.
"There's just no need for this agency to exist," she said. "We need to shut it down.''
Voting rights advocates counter that the commission is still needed, particularly since some states still experience long lines at polls and other problems on Election Day.
"There's a great need for it,'' said Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington Bureau of the NAACP. "There's a need for those responsibilities that the EAC was given by statute ... We want to see the EAC strengthened so it can do what it was designed to do.''
Congress created the Election Assistance Commission in 2002 as part of the Help America Vote Act to help states improve their voting systems.
The commission serves as a source of election-related information and data. Since 2004, it has provided states with technical advice in running elections and has disbursed more than $3.2 billion in federal funds to help them upgrade voting machines, train poll workers and buy new equipment. About $18 million remains.
Currently, the agency's four commissioner slots are vacant and it has an acting executive director. Without enough commissioners, the commission can't adopt new policies, hold formal hearings or issue advisory opinions.
Eliminating the commission would save $11.5 million a year, said Harper, who called the agency "the poster child for wasting money.''
"It doesn't get any easier to find an example of wasteful spending,'' Harper said. "If we can't do this, we might as well pack up and go home because this is as obvious as it gets.''
Election experts and voting rights advocates have blamed Democrats and Republicans for not nominating candidates to fill the vacant commissioner posts and with failing to provide the commission with enough money.
"What is absolutely outrageous ... is that here you have an agency that is being criticized by a member of the governing body that has the authority to give it what it needs to work and won't do it,'' Shelton said.
Commission officials say they are still running programs, including roundtables and webinars.
Rep. Robert Brady of Pennsylvania, the top Democrat on the Administration Committee, said the commission is the only federal agency to offer such services and has an "important, valuable role.''
"It is a commission worth reauthorizing,'' Brady said.
Brady offered a proposal to reauthorize the commission through 2018, require a study on its cost-effectiveness and improve access for voters with disabilities, but the Republican-controlled committee rejected it.
Democrats cited a range of election problems during last year's election, including long lines at some polls, that they said the commission should investigate with the goal of proposing solutions.
If the commission isn't working, "maybe we can reform it instead of throwing it out,'' Brady said.
Harper said reform isn't enough.
"At some point, you have to say this didn't work," he said during an earlier interview. "They were not supposed to be here forever... They've done what they needed to do. Let's close that chapter."
June 5, 2013, Deborah Barfield Berry, USA TODAY