The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

FEC commissioner’s departure leaves panel with bare-minimum quorum

FEC Commissioner Lee Goodman is stepping down later this month after more than four years on the panel.
FEC Commissioner Lee Goodman is stepping down later this month after more than four years on the panel. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Lee Goodman, a Republican appointee to the Federal Election Commission, announced his resignation Wednesday, leaving the deeply divided panel with a bare quorum to conduct business.

Goodman, who has pushed for less regulation of money in politics during his four years on the panel, will rejoin the Washington-based law firm Wiley Rein, which specializes in election law and government ethics. His last day at the FEC will be Feb. 16.

With Goodman’s departure, the FEC has a bare-minimum quorum of four members — two Republicans, one Democrat and one independent — whose unanimous votes are now required to take official action.

And the panel could soon lose another commissioner: Steven T. Walther, an independent appointed in 2006 who often votes with the Democrats, also is considering stepping down, the Center for Public Integrity reported in December. Walther did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

If Walther departs and a new appointee is not immediately confirmed, the commission would be unable to take official action, such as enforcing regulations, issuing advisory opinions or approving audit reports.

Among the initiatives that could be derailed: an effort to place tighter regulations on Internet ads published on major online platforms to thwart foreign meddling in U.S. elections.

“Until the next selected commissioner is in place, the commission will depend upon unanimity in order to act,” said campaign finance lawyer Daniel Petalas, formerly the FEC’s acting general counsel and head of enforcement. “And given the often fractured relationship of the members of the commission, unanimity doesn’t come often.”

The last time the FEC lost quorum and was effectively paralyzed was 2008, when only two of the six commission seats were filled, leaving it hobbled at the start of a presidential election year.

Read Lee Goodman’s resignation letter

Goodman said he had planned to resign at the end of 2017 and return to private practice. But he said he delayed his move when fellow GOP Commissioner Matthew Petersen was nominated by President Trump last year to serve as a U.S. District Court judge.

In December, Petersen withdrew from consideration after struggling to answer basic questions about legal procedures during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Petersen still serves on the FEC.

In anticipation of the departures of Goodman and Petersen, the White House in September nominated Trey Trainor, a conservative Texas lawyer who worked for Trump’s campaign, to serve on the FEC. But the Senate has not held a confirmation hearing for Trainor. Trainor did not return a request for comment.

The seat formerly held by Democratic appointee Ann Ravel, who resigned from the FEC a year ago, remains vacant. The rest of the commissioners are serving expired terms.

The White House did not respond to inquiries Wednesday about how it plans to fill FEC vacancies.

“You don’t have a margin for error when you have four commissioners. You need unanimity to get things approved,” said Michael Toner, former FEC commissioner and partner at Wiley Rein. “I do think this will create greater focus on the FEC, and I want to see whether it leads to the nomination process proceeding here.”

Goodman said he believes that Trainor would replace him on the commission and that his departure will spur the White House and Senate Rules and Administration Committee to work quickly to fill the vacancies.

“I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest for the commission to lack a quorum,” Goodman said.

Goodman, who was appointed to the FEC in 2013 by President Barack Obama, said he believes he accomplished the work he had set out to do on the commission.

“I leave one principle area sort of incomplete: That’s greater deregulation of state and local political parties, and there’s still work underway here,” Goodman said. “Otherwise, I thought I had fought the good fight to keep political speech on the Internet free, to protect free-press rights and generally protect the First Amendment rights of American citizens.”