About Time

Posted May 20, 2008 at 4:05pm

At long last, after torturous delays produced by (what else?) partisan rancor, the Bush administration and Senate Democrats are on the verge of reconstituting a working Federal Election Commission — almost.

Key to breaking the impasse was the withdrawal Friday of Republican nominee Hans von Spakovsky, whose confirmation had been held up by Democrats for more than two years, triggering Republican refusal to permit other vacancies on the commission to be filled.

Even as he was leaving the scene — understandably asserting he could not financially afford to wait in limbo any longer — von Spakovsky set loose parting shots from all sides.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pronounced him “not qualified to hold any position of trust in our government” because, as a Justice Department attorney, he had carried out Bush administration policy in promoting voter-identification laws in the states. Von Spakovsky told Roll Call in an interview that he felt vindicated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s upholding the constitutionality of such a law in Indiana.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Democrats had established a dismal precedent in blocking a qualified nominee from the bipartisan FEC.

Now that the von Spakovsky stalemate is broken, the Senate Rules and Administration Committee is scheduled to hold hearings today on three pending nominees — Republican lawyer Don McGahn; Republican Caroline Hunter, now a member of the Election Assistance Commission; and Democratic Senate aide Cynthia Bauerly.

We hope that the full Senate will approve the nominees this week so that the FEC will have five of its six slots filled, will finally have a quorum and will finally begin to do its important work. The FEC must officially act to release presidential matching funds for the general election, assuming one or both nominees decide to take it.

It also must produce regulations carrying out Congress’ mandate for disclosure of bundlers of campaign contributions. It also needs to be available to issue advisory opinions to various federal campaigns on complying with the law. In 2004, the FEC issued 45 such opinions.

In addition to those pressing demands, the commission also needs to dispose of an issue raised by former FEC Chairman David Mason, a maverick Republican, as to whether Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tacitly accepted public funds — and broke spending limits — for his primary campaign by offering his ability to collect such funds as collateral for a bank loan. If the commission were to reach such a finding, that would leave McCain with essentially no money to spend until September.

The Bush administration withdrew Mason’s name from consideration for reappointment to the FEC. Its new nominee, McGahn, has done so much work for GOP candidates that he may have to recuse himself from many cases. This would leave the commission with three Democrats and two Republicans when McGahn can vote and a 3-to-1 commission when he can’t. It’s urgent in this election year that the administration fill the empty Republican slot — and that the Senate confirm the nominee as quickly as possible.