As of this month, the six-member commission is down to three commissioners, although it needs four for a quorum. Without a quorum, the FEC cannot hold hearings, make rules, initiate litigation, issue advisory opinions, launch investigations or approve enforcement actions and audits, among other things. The FEC chairwoman, Ellen L. Weintraub, has put on a brave face, noting that the commission’s “most important duties will continue unimpeded,” such as shining a spotlight on campaign finance and performing the staff work when it receives complaints. She insists that the “United States’ election cop is still on the 2020 campaign beat” and that she will “remain vigilant to all threats to the integrity of our elections.”
But this is a precarious time for the commissioners to lack a quorum. The 2016 presidential election was undermined by interference from Russia, and the upcoming campaign seems equally vulnerable to mischief and meddling. Moreover, the need is greater than ever to police the torrents of cash flowing into campaign coffers, much of it in dark money from shady interest groups. The lack of a quorum at the FEC is an open invitation to those who want to skirt the law to gamble that they won’t be caught until later, if at all.
President Trump has repeatedly leveled the charge, of which there is no evidence, that there was massive voter fraud in 2016. If he were really interested in keeping U.S. elections clean and transparent, he would make a special effort to bring the FEC back up to speed. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has long wanted to neuter the FEC. Both he and Mr. Trump have the power to fix it — and have not.
The FEC, created after the Watergate scandals, is supposed to have three Republican and three Democratic members, nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. In practice, they have been nominated by the White House with agreement from party leaders in Congress, two at a time, one from each party. Mr. Trump saw fit to send up a single Republican last time, breaking with the tacit understanding; that nomination awaits Senate action. Two other vacant commissioner seats have no nominee.
Even before the current loss of a quorum, the FEC was beset by partisan deadlock. Meanwhile, all three current serving commissioners are holdovers first appointed in the presidency of George W. Bush. It looks as though politicians have done their best to weaken the FEC just as the nation heads into an election cycle. Whose interest does that serve?