A Federal Election Commission confirmation hearing quickly grew heated on Wednesday as Democrats zeroed in on Republican nominee Hans von Spakovsky, a former Justice Department lawyer whose confirmation hangs in the balance and threatens a once-routine agency appointment process.
“Serious questions have been raised about whether or not you have been respectful of the right of Americans to vote,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told von Spakovsky before an unusually packed FEC confirmation panel.
Of the six-member bipartisan commission, four nominees appeared on Wednesday before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee: Republican nominees von Spakovsky and David Mason, and Democrats Steven Walther and Robert Lenhard. Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, is currently on the commission until her replacement is named. Michael Toner’s departure in spring 2006 created one Republican vacancy on the commission that the White House has not filled.
But questioning by Durbin and other Democrats focused almost exclusively on von Spakovsky, primarily his tenure as a voting rights lawyer at the Department of Justice, an agency hammered by Democrats in recent months regarding claims of politicization by White House appointees.
In von Spakovsky’s case, critics claim political — not legal — considerations were at the heart of his tinkering with voter identification laws in Georgia and elsewhere. Such laws, many claim, are the modern-day equivalent of poll taxes, which were used in some parts of the United States after the Civil War to disenfranchise black voters.
“You have become a lightning rod to all of the problems that have become inherent in American voting,” said Rules Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
Von Spakovsky claimed during the hearing, however, that he was simply a manager executing the orders of DOJ higher-ups. His bosses, he claimed, were the ones pushing the get-tough approach on allegations of voter fraud and that he simply was the “face that [DOJ employees] saw.”
“[This] is the kind of problem that occurs in any organization. When the president of an organization makes a decision on a matter, he’s not the one that goes down and tells the guys on the assembly line. The president tells the senior vice president, who tells the vice president, who tells the manager. And it’s the manager who goes and delivers the message to the line people,” von Spakovsky said. “When the assistant attorney general made a decision ... [he] wasn’t the one who would call and talk to the chiefs, deputy chiefs or the line attorneys on a case; they would tell me what the decision was on a matter. ...”
Joseph Rich, a former DOJ lawyer, disputed von Spakovsky’s claims that he was simply following orders. In a letter signed by other DOJ officials this week, Rich claimed von Spakovsky “injected partisan political factors into decision-making” and attempted to intimidate his co-workers.
“He was the point person for undermining the Civil Rights Division’s mandate to protect voting rights,” Rich and others claimed in the letter. “Foremost amongst his actions was his central decision-making role on a matter where he clearly should have recused himself.”
Feinstein called it “very unusual” that so many at the agency questioned his actions.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.