Nice FEC You Got There. Shame If Anything ... Oh Sh*t, Something Happened To It.
The federal agency that's supposed to oversee US elections will soon be without any actual power to enforce election laws, because one of the four remaining members of the Federal Election Commission will be resigning August 31. The commission is supposed to have three Democrats and three Republicans, but it's been limping along for years with just four members, two from each party. The resignation announcement by Republican commissioner Matthew Petersen yesterday leaves the FEC without a quorum, so it will be unable to pass new rules, vote to punish electoral wrongdoers, or accomplish much of anything beyond routine functions like collecting and publishing campaign donation information (which remains a very big deal). The FEC has for years been criticized for partisan deadlocks due to its structure. Now it will be literally powerless, which is probably how Mitch McConnell likes it.
FEC chair Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, issued a statement on Twitter yesterday that was intended to sound reassuring, pointing out that a big portion of the FEC's job goes on without any need for input from the commissioners:
Yes, the Commission's ability to make decisions regarding past infractions will be delayed until a quorum is restored. But some of the FEC's most important duties will continue unimpeded. Make no mistake: The FEC will still be able to shine a strong spotlight on the finances of the 2020 campaign. Political committees still must report their contributions and spending. Hundreds of dedicated public servants at the FEC will continue to make millions of pages of campaign-finance information available to the public and the press quickly and accurately. The FEC continues to stand ready to assist political committees, the press, and the public with any campaign-finance questions they may have. Our information technology staff will continue to keep our website up and running and our data secure.
As for the actual enforcement of election laws, Weintraub says US America's "election cop is still on the 2020 campaign beat." It's just had its gun, badge, handcuffs, whistle, and taser taken away, although it still has a notebook and a pencil to take your complaint for later action.
The FEC's enforcement machinery will continue to operate. If a complainant believes a new infraction has been committed, the FEC will still take that complaint. We will still ask the respondent to respond. And our Office of General Counsel will still work up the matter and make its recommendation on whether the Commission should vote to find reason to believe the law may have been violated. Only the Commission's vote on that recommendation will be delayed. Previously authorized investigations will continue.
Oh, there's also a slight complication: the White House and most Republicans in the Senate don't like campaign finance laws, and don't seem inclined to unlock the police station anytime soon. Also, Mitch McConnell has "Fuck Tha [electoral] Police" playing on repeat. As ThinkProgress explains, there's a reason the FEC has gone from deadlocked, with six members who seldom agree, to completely dysfunctional. McConnell, that master of manipulating the rules to help his party, would prefer to have no functional FEC at all.
Normally, the six members of the commission are appointed to staggered six-year terms, so that two seats come up for replacement every two years, usually one D and one R appointee, for balance. If there's no successor named, then a commissioner whose term is expired can stay on. At the moment, everyone on the commission is serving after their terms expired -- Petersen was appointed by George W. Bush back in 2008. The two empty seats before he resigned have been open for years, and that really does seem to be exactly what Republicans want:
While the positions were once filled in pairs with little fanfare, since McConnell (an avowed foe of campaign finance law) became majority leader in 2015, not a single commissioner has been confirmed. [...]
President Donald Trump has made little effort to appoint new commissioners since taking office. But the one nomination he has made — pro-Trump attorney Trey Trainor of Texas — has been waiting for a confirmation hearing since September 2017.
Petersen almost left his seat in 2017 when Trump appointed him to be a federal judge, but he turned out to be too stupid even for some Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee. In his thoroughly embarrassing confirmation hearing, he admitted he'd never actually done much of anything as an attorney in a federal trial, and later withdrew his name from consideration. Yeah, he's that guy!
In a truly impressive display of bad faith, a "senior GOP Senate aide" explained to the Washington Post there's a possible plan to restore the commission to full strength -- but only if the "two longtime Democratic holdovers" agree to leave, so Donald Trump can appoint a full slate of six new people. The anonymous aide said, "A clean slate of members will go a long way toward fixing some of the perceived dysfunction at the Commission."
Why, yes -- Trump could appoint three Democrats and three Republicans, and then McConnell might decide that all three Republicans and one Democrat would get a confirmation vote. That seems only fair.
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