- Democrat Ellen Weintraub set to assume helm of elections panel
- Commissioner has clashed with Republicans over enforcement
The threat of foreign money influencing U.S. elections and the need for increased disclosure of campaign funding will be top priorities for Ellen Weintraub, the incoming chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission, next year.
Weintraub said she plans to initiate “outward-facing public events” to draw attention to campaign finance problems and possible solutions.
Such events could be important, she said, as the Democratic-controlled House is poised to take up campaign finance proposals as a top priority when the new Congress convenes in January.
Weintraub will take over the top position at the FEC in 2019, following a vote at a commission meeting set for Dec. 13. The chairmanship rotates to a new commissioner each year. Weintraub, a Democrat, is in line to follow current Chairwoman Caroline Hunter, a Republican.
Weintraub expressed frustration at her agency’s inaction on measures to curb foreign money from influencing elections in an interview Dec. 9 during a national ethics conference in Philadelphia. She appeared on a panel titled “More Than Meddling” to discuss the threat of foreign interference in elections, highlighted by Russian efforts to intervene in the 2016 presidential race.
“I keep throwing out ideas, hoping one will stick,” she said during the conference, sponsored by the Council on Governmental Ethics Laws (COGEL).
First nominated by President George W. Bush following a recommendation by Democratic congressional leaders, Weintraub has been on the FEC since 2002 and is now its longest-serving commissioner. A lawyer, she came to the commission from private practice at the firm Perkins Coie, which represents Democratic candidates, party committees, and allied groups. Earlier in her career, she was a staff attorney for the House Ethics Committee.
The bipartisan commission has slots for six members, equally divided between those recommended by Democrats and Republicans, with a four-vote majority required for any action. In recent years, Weintraub has clashed frequently with Republican commissioners, accusing them of failing to enforce campaign finance laws. She’s won praise from those outside the agency who want it to do more to control the power of money in politics.
The FEC will not be effective “until this Commission has at least four members who are willing to enforce existing law barring foreign-national political involvement and address dark money, and until Congress passes new legislation expanding and clarifying the Commission’s duty in these areas,” Weintraub said in a September letter to congressional appropriators.
Weintraub’s main effort has been a push for greater transparency to disclose whether entities spending money in elections might have foreign funders, skirting a long-standing prohibition of using foreign money to influence American elections. New disclosure rules have stalled at the FEC for most of the last decade, and commission votes on some enforcement cases regarding alleged foreign money have deadlocked due to partisan divisions.
Of particular concern, Weintraub said, is funding provided by foreign-controlled companies and secretive firms known as limited liability companies, or LLCs. In one key case frequently cited by Weintraub, the FEC dismissed on a deadlocked vote allegations that Chinese nationals provided the money behind real-estate LLCs funding a Super PAC that supported the Senate campaign of former Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Fla.) in Florida.
The Supreme Court allowed corporate money to influence elections in the 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC. Since then, Democrats on the FEC have pressed for new disclosure rules for campaign funding. Republicans have resisted, saying it should be up to Congress to decide whether new rules are needed following the Supreme Court decision. Congress also has been divided along party lines on campaign finance issues.
Weintraub noted that even a limited proposal she advanced to restrict campaign funding from companies owned by foreign governments was turned back on a deadlocked, party-line vote of the commission.
Republicans on the FEC have argued that “issue speech,” which doesn’t explicitly call for votes for or against candidates, is constitutionally protected even if it’s paid for by foreign sources, Weintraub said. “We have to have a different frame in order to protect ourselves” from foreign influence, she said.
One area where progress could be made, Weintraub said, is increased disclosure regarding online political ads. Russian-funded ads on Facebook Inc. and other social media platforms have been highlighted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of interference in the 2016 election.
The FEC is “still working on” a rulemaking proposal for online ads, which stalled after a public comment period and hearings were held in 2018, Weintraub said.
The Dec. 13 meeting is the FEC’s last scheduled for 2018. In addition to the election of new officers, the commission is set to consider advisory opinions dealing with cybersecurity issues.
The commission is expected to decide whether congressional lawmakers may tap campaign funds to protect their personal cell phones, computers and other devices and accounts from cyberattack, without “an impermissible conversion of campaign funds to personal use” under campaign finance law.
The FEC also is set to consider another, more controversial proposal from a newly formed nonprofit called Defending Digital Campaigns. The organization wants the commission to approve its plans to provide free, wide-ranging cybersecurity assistance to candidates and political parties. Such free services could be considered illegal contributions to the campaigns, unless the commission approves the plan.
The bipartisan proposal was presented in a September advisory opinion request filed by top election lawyers Marc Elias, a Democrat, and Michael Toner, a Republican. The FEC has delayed considering the request for almost three months.
To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at email@example.com