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.
The longest-serving commissioner is Ellen Weintraub (D), whose term expired almost four years ago. The only commissioner who will be serving an unexpired term at the end of the month is Republican Caroline C. Hunter, whom Bush nominated in 2008, for a term that expires in April 2013.
Further complicating the confirmation process is a large list of pending issues before the FEC that will affect Obama’s own re-election campaign.
One of the biggest issues is how the FEC will write new rules in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which would set boundaries for how hundreds of millions of dollars can be spent by third parties in the presidential election and Congressional campaigns. The issue was so important to Obama that he admonished the Supreme Court a few days after its decision in the case during his 2010 State of the Union address.
The commission has also received a complaint against Obama’s 2008 campaign and is conducting an audit of the campaign of Obama’s 2008 opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
It may be difficult for Obama to appoint new commissioners who would be responsible for ruling on issues closely tied to his own political fortunes.
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, said campaign finance reform advocates are going to renew efforts to push Obama to nominate a fresh group of commissioners during the upcoming weeks.
However, opponents of campaign finance reform such as Sean Parnell, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, say that even if Republicans and Democrats in the Senate agree and confirm new appointees, “it won’t change anything.”
Because Democrats and Republicans are likely to nominate only candidates with ideologies similar to the current commissioners, many FEC issues will continue to end in deadlocks.
“Frankly, this is a good thing for [reform advocates] to be focused on, from my standpoint, because it keeps them out of my hair on substantive things,” Parnell said. “It’s chasing the newest, shiny thing that the campaign finance reform community has set their eyes on: new commissioners. OK. Whatever.”
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.