As Primaries Begin, the FEC Will Shut Down
Saturday, December 22, 2007
The federal agency in charge of policing the torrent of political spending during the upcoming presidential primaries will, for all practical purposes, shut its doors on New Year's Eve.
The Federal Election Commission will effectively go dark on Jan. 1 because Congress remains locked in a standoff over the confirmation of President Bush's nominees to the panel. As a consequence, the FEC will enter 2008 with just two of six members -- short of the four votes needed for the commission to take any official action.
"There is, in effect, nobody to answer the phone," said Robert F. Bauer, a leading Democratic campaign finance lawyer.
Although the 375 auditors, lawyers and investigators at the FEC will continue to process work already before them, a variety of matters that fall to the commissioners will be placed on hold indefinitely. Chief among them are deciding whether to launch investigations into possible campaign finance violations and determining the penalties.
Seven presidential candidates have applied to receive public matching funds for their campaigns, but they may not be able to access the money until the FEC certifies their requests. That takes four votes.
The national political parties each anticipate an infusion of about $1 million from the U.S. Treasury to help pay for their national conventions. Releasing that money takes four votes.
And then there is a range of vexing campaign finance questions that hang in limbo: Can a firm that operates a blimp accept unlimited contributions to fly it over New Hampshire with Ron Paul's name on the side? Can a senator use his campaign account as a legal defense fund? How will campaigns comply with the new law that requires them to identify the lobbyists who are collecting campaign checks on their behalf?
"Work on those questions will grind to a halt," said FEC Chairman Robert D. Lenhard, whose recess appointment will expire on New Year's Eve. Lenhard said he did not wish to reflect on the situation, other than to offer a familiar lament.
"Politics," he said glumly yesterday, before returning to the ice rink to skate with his daughter. "That's what generated this situation."
The FEC is composed of three appointees from each party, all nominated by the president. There is already one vacancy, and three recess appointments will expire on Dec. 31.
The potential for an FEC shutdown has been looming for weeks, as a handful of Democratic senators voiced opposition to one of Bush's nominees to the commission, Hans A. von Spakovsky. Their concern stemmed not from von Spakovsky's work on the FEC but from his tenure in the Justice Department's civil rights division.
His critics contend that von Spakovsky advocated a controversial Texas redistricting plan and fought to institute a requirement in Georgia that voters show photo identification before being permitted to cast ballots.