By the end of this month, five of the six commissioners’ terms at the Federal Election Commission will have expired, providing President Barack Obama the opportunity to profoundly change the leadership at the federal agency that administers and enforces the nation’s campaign finance laws.
But campaign finance experts say it is extremely unlikely that the president will be able to seat any new commissioners at all. So far, Obama does not have any nominees before the Senate for the three commissioners whose terms have expired, nor names to replace the two commissioners whose 2008 appointments by President George W. Bush expire at the end of the month.
While the president can legally nominate anyone he wants to the FEC, traditionally each party has chosen its own slate of nominees for the agency. Republicans have not offered Obama any.
Confirmation of any new commissioners would likely face a filibuster from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and other Republicans in the chamber.
The chances of new commissioners being nominated and getting confirmed by the Senate these days are “virtually nil unless done quickly and soon,” according to Jan Baran, a senior partner at the Wiley Rein law firm who specializes in campaign finance. “As Obama continues raising his billion dollars for re-election, Harry Reid has his guy [at the FEC], and McConnell has his guy there. So what’s the incentive to make any change?”
While the president can choose not to nominate any new commissioners, campaign finance reform advocates have been lobbying loudly for FEC appointments. Groups such as the Campaign Legal Center, Democracy 21 and Public Citizen say nominees are needed to break the stalemate of a string of recent 3-3 votes that have prevented the commission from taking action.
“Whether there is any constructive movement [at the FEC] is at the president’s doorstep,” Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, said at a recent meeting. “I don’t think that he can evade responsibility any longer. He’s got to make a choice of whether or not the rhetoric he believes in matches the inner workings of his government.”
It is unknown whether the president will soon nominate any new commissioners. The White House spokesman in charge of FEC issues did not respond to phone calls and emails requesting comment.
“It’s not a pressing issue,” a Republican Congressional staffer said of the agency’s term expirations, because commissioners often continue serving at the FEC after their terms have expired.
The terms of Chairwoman Cynthia Bauerly (D) and Commissioner Matthew Petersen (R) expire at the end of April. The terms of Donald McGahn (R) and Steven Walther (D) expired almost two years ago.
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.