Spending on political advertisements in the 2020 election cycle is expected to shatter records, both nationally and here in Maine. These forecasts — and the political gamesmanship that will surely accompany the money — underscore the importance of a fully functioning campaign finance watchdog agency.
So it is very worrisome to see the Federal Election Commission, at least for now, reduced in its ability to vote and take action on potential campaign finance violations.
The FEC is a six-member commission, but it had been operating since February 2018 with only four commissioners. Last week, Vice Chairman Matthew Petersen, a Republican, announced his resignation. The agency tasked with providing transparency in elections and enforcing federal campaign finance laws now does not have enough members for a quorum, meaning it cannot vote on enforcement decisions, pass new rules or provide advisory opinions.
FEC Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, emphasized in an Aug. 26 statement that while the commission cannot currently vote on many of these enforcement matters, the agency is far from shuttered.
“Make no mistake: The FEC will still be able to shine a strong spotlight on the finances of the 2020 campaign,” she said. “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.”
This situation at the FEC isn’t an all-out crisis and it isn’t unprecedented — in fact, the commission failed to have a quorum for six months in 2008 before an agreement was reached to confirm a group of five commissioners. But given the onslaught of political spending that is already building up more than a year before the 2020 election, there must be pressure on the Trump Administration and the U.S. Senate to not only restore a quorum at the FEC, but also to finally return to a full six-member commission.
It’s not as if the FEC has been a beacon of productivity and meaningful action prior to this development. Its structure — which requires that no more than three commissioners of the same party can serve at the same time — has frequently and increasingly led to the body being deadlocked on partisan lines. And court rulings, most notably in Citizens United v. FEC, have severely undercut the commission’s authority and ability to regulate outside political spending.
All of the three remaining FEC commissioners — one Democrat, one Republican and one independent — are currently serving in expired terms. That only further emphasizes the need for President Donald Trump to nominate and the Senate to confirm commissioners from across the political spectrum. Trump currently has one Republican nomination languishing in the Senate, and has not nominated a Democrat to fill any of the open seats. An informal past practice has been to group multiple nominees from different political backgrounds together. There’s been a predictable and unproductive level of partisanship surrounding this and other nominations.
That needs to stop.
As Trevor Potter, a former Republican head of the FEC who now leads the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, rightly acknowledged following Petersen’s resignation, the imperative of a fully functioning FEC goes well beyond campaign competition between Democrats and Republicans.
“In the 2020 election, political spending is expected to reach nearly $10 billion,” Potter said in a statement, as reported by ABC News. “With the campaign season in full swing, there is no time to waste in securing our democracy. Russia exploited a weak FEC to covertly meddle in U.S. elections through digital ads and the FEC has a pending rulemaking to tighten disclosure requirements.”
While FEC nominations must first come from the president, it may ultimately be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who plays the largest role in this discussion moving forward. We hope he will revisit his own comments from 2008, after the deal to add five new commissioners was reached.
“A fully functioning, bipartisan FEC is long overdue,” McConnell said more than a decade ago, according to CBS news reporting at the time. He derided Democrats for the 2008 FEC impasse and expressed hope that the commission could “resume its critical role of enforcing election laws and ensuring that this election season is fair and equitable to all who are involved.”
America’s campaign finance landscape has changed drastically — and for the worse — since McConnell made that statement in 2008, and he unquestionably played a part in that shift. But with 2020 on the horizon, we hope he hasn’t forgotten his words about the important role the FEC plays in ensuring a fair and equitable election.