The Federal Election Commission (FEC) — intended to be a group of no more than three Democrats and no more than three Republicans overseeing the federal campaign finance system — has been operating with just a bare quorum of four for the past 18 months. With the resignation of Vice Chairman Matthew Petersen, at the end of the week, the commission will be virtually paralyzed.
The reason for this: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his Republican-controlled U.S. Senate.
The FEC is a peculiar agency. It was created in 1974 to enforce finance laws for House, Senate, presidential, and vice presidential campaigns. Unlike most agencies, neither party is allowed to hold a working majority of seats at any time. Scott Harshbarger, the former president of the campaign finance reform group Common Cause, once quipped that the FEC is “probably the only agency in Washington that has done from the beginning exactly what it was intended to do, which was to do nothing.’’
But while the commission has often deadlocked along party lines — especially in recent years — it still has played some role in issuing fines, auditing campaign filings, and investigating corruption. With just three active members, it will be able to do none of that.
The FEC can no longer:
Conduct meetings ❌
Issue fines ❌
Make rules ❌
Conduct audits ❌
Vote on the outcome of investigations ❌ https://t.co/ZVYyGLvZs7
— Joe Yerardi (@JoeYerardi) August 26, 2019
The six commissioners are appointed by the president — subject to Senate confirmation — to serve a single six-year term. The terms are staggered so two (typically one Democratic and one Republican commissioner) are up every two years. If no successor is confirmed, commissioners may stay on as long as they are willing. While the positions were once filled in pairs with little fanfare, since McConnell (an avowed foe of campaign finance law) became majority leader in 2015, not a single commissioner has been confirmed. Petersen and the remaining commissioners are all serving expired terms.
President Donald Trump has made little effort to appoint new commissioners since taking office. But the one nomination he has made — pro-Trump attorney Trey Trainor of Texas — has been waiting for a confirmation hearing since September 2017.
McConnell has dubbed himself the “grim reaper,” blocking virtually all legislative action in the United States Senate and focusing almost exclusively on confirming Trump’s nominees. But the Federal Election Commission has been a notable exception.
Back in 2010, President Barack Obama’s first nominee to the Federal Election Commission — John J. Sullivan — withdrew from consideration despite strong bipartisan support, after waiting more than a year for a vote in the full Senate. Two senators demanded that other expired seats be filled at the time, but this did not happen due to lack of agreement from then-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.