Election Panel Set to Be Revived But Likely to Remain Deadlocked

  • Senate panel to consider Federal Election Commission nominees
  • Confirmation would restore quorum to panel inactive since 2019

The Federal Election Commission is set to be revived after being sidelined during the most expensive election in U.S. history.

Senate Rules and Administration Committee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) scheduled a confirmation hearing for Wednesday for Democrat Shana Broussard and Republicans Sean Cooksey and Allen Dickerson. President Donald Trump nominated them to fill longstanding vacancies to the commission in charge of campaign finance enforcement.

The panel hopes to advance their nominations to the Senate floor, where they could be voted on by the end of November.

The FEC can then get started on a backlog of about 400 enforcement cases that, according to commission officials, include complaints filed in this year’s election, as well as unresolved matters from the the previous two federal elections and some from even earlier.

But some campaign finance experts doubt that the restoration of a voting quorum — which the FEC has lacked for all but a few weeks since September 2019 — will end the history of gridlock on the six-member panel, which is equally divided between the parties and requires the approval of four members to take any enforcement action.

“Unfortunately, I will not be surprised if we continue to see the Commission continue to deadlock along ideological lines when they consider action on enforcement cases,” said Democratic election lawyer Brett Kappel, who’s practiced before the FEC for 30 years.

Photo by Leigh Vogel/UPI/Bloomberg
President Donald Trump wants to fill three FEC openings before leaving office.

Divided Panel

Confirming the nominees during the lame-duck session of Congress would prevent an incoming Biden administration from filling the vacancies, Kappel said, and likely preserve the divisions that have prevented the commission from taking strong enforcement action for more than a decade.

Before it lost a voting quorum last year, the commission frequently broke along party lines, with Democrats pushing for more aggressive enforcement of campaign finance laws to prevent corruption and Republicans balking due to concerns about free speech.

Current commissioners are Republican Trey Trainor, Democrat Ellen Weintraub, and Steven Walther, an independent backed by Democrats. Weintraub has been an outspoken critic of the commission’s Republicans, saying they fail enforce campaign finance laws aggressively.

Former Republican FEC Commissioner Lee Goodman said that the reconstituted commission may be able to reach agreement in select areas, such as a new disclaimer rule for digital ads.

“So long as Commissioner Weintraub is open to compromise, I’m sure there are issues where a new set of commissioners can find consensus,” said Goodman, who works at the law firm Wiley Rein.

Broussard is a current FEC staff attorney who would be the first Black member of the commission since it was launched in 1975. Cooksey is an aide to Sen. Josh Hawley(R-Mo.), and Dickerson is the legal director of the Institute for Free Speech, a nonprofit that’s spearheaded challenges to campaign finance rules.

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
The Senate Rules and Administration Committee’s top Democrat Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) supports the confirmation of three FEC nominees that would restore a quorum on the panel.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the Rules Committee ranking member, has expressed support for moving the nominations, noting in a statement that she and other Democrats pushed for approval of Broussard’s nomination for over a year but Trump failed to nominate her until last month.

“The FEC needs to be fully functioning so it can enforce our nation’s campaign finance laws,” Klobuchar said in a statement. “However, the timing of these nominations cannot be ignored. We need to stop treating the agency that’s charged with keeping corruption out of our elections like a political pawn.”

Campaign finance watchdog groups expressed outrage that the FEC remained without a quorum during a 2020 campaign estimated to cost to cost more than $14 billion — double the cost of the 2016 presidential election cycle.

Much of the money in key races came from super PACs and other outside spending groups that accepted unlimited contributions — sometimes from secret sources.

“If there was ever a time to have a functional Federal Election Commission, that time is now,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, a campaign finance watchdog group. But she said to be effective, “the agency needs to not only have a quorum but a quorum of commissioners who are dedicated to upholding our nation’s campaign finance laws.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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