FEC Soon to Have 3 Open Seats

Posted April 29, 2009 at 6:38pm

As of Friday morning, President Barack Obama can officially name three replacements to the Federal Election Commission. And although turnover at the agency is not expected before the end of the year, speculation about possible nominees is already burning up phone lines around town.

The administration and Senate Democratic and GOP leadership offices all declined to comment despite the looming expiration of Independent Steven Walther’s and Republican Don McGahn’s terms tomorrow.

Along with Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, who continues to work at the agency although her term expired two years ago, the May 1 deadline will bring to three the number of expired terms at the six-member panel.

Still, members of the campaign finance community say that possible replacements for Walther’s, McGahn’s and Weintraub’s seats already are being floated behind the scenes, although new nominees likely will not be voted on by the Senate before 2010.

According to multiple sources, first on the list of possible FEC nominees is John Sullivan. A seasoned Service Employees International Union lawyer, Sullivan’s possible nomination would be a twofer for the White House.

In addition to lobbing a bone to organized labor for their help during the election last fall, a member of the election law community said privately that Sullivan could provide the necessary adult supervision in the vein of election law specialists like McGahn and former Chairmen Michael Toner, a Republican, and Robert Lenhard, a Democrat.

Current Chairman Walther, for example, a personal friend of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), had no formal election law experience before he was nominated.

“Sullivan comes out of SEIU, which obviously is one of the most dominant unions in the country and an anchor of the Democratic Party,— the source said. “He also is a guy who’s been doing campaign finance law for 15 years. You look at Toner, Lenhard, McGahn, there’s a category of people who go up there who are election law practitioners.—

Reached by telephone, Sullivan declined to comment.

Another possible Democratic nominee, sources say, is staffer Tom Hicks of the House Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over voting and election issues.

Potentially the agency’s first black commissioner, Hicks’ name has emerged before for FEC vacancies, although his formal nomination to an open agency post has never materialized.

“Hicks is both an African-American and has watched and overseen the agency from the Hill for a long time and certainly has both a sense of the politics from Capitol Hill, as well as the drafting of the legislation and watching its implementation,— the source added. “There’s a range of former commissioners who have come from the Hill.—

But a campaign finance lawyer said privately that the White House should bypass Hill staffers altogether and begin looking to former Members — particularly Republicans — to fill vacant FEC slots.

“If I were the White House, I would be looking to elevate the qualifications of FEC commissioners,— wrote one campaign finance lawyer in an e-mail. “They have become virtual non-entities, especially on the GOP side.—

Former Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) would appear to have such qualifications. A veteran of the campaign finance reform movement, Shays was unseated last fall and recently joined the board of the reform-minded Campaign Legal Center.

Shays, who was not reachable by phone on Tuesday, co-sponsored the House version of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform act of 2002, which attempted to crack down on soft money and proposed abolishing the agency altogether on numerous occasions.

And with no conservative voters to appease, courtesy of the man who defeated him, Rep. Jim Himes (D), Shays would be free to speak his mind on the agency’s long-standing dysfunction.

“The guy has been interested in the subject. He’s been a plaintiff in a lot of the litigation on the House side,— said a third source, who specializes in election law. “If Shays replaces McGahn … talk about a change? It would change the complexion of the place dramatically.—

“You have to think that Shays would play ball with the other side,— the source continued. “The thing about a guy like him is who is he accountable to? He doesn’t owe anybody anything. … I think McConnell would blow a gasket,— the election lawyer added, referring to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), an avowed opponent of campaign finance regulation.

Paul Ryan, a Campaign Legal Center lawyer, also could be a long-shot pick — but one who would likely bring strong opposition from conservatives like McConnell. Still, his selection undoubtedly would delight the reform community, which has been a vocal backer in praising the White House recently for marginalizing lobbyists.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong in a six-member body to have someone with his perspective,— the lawyer said about Ryan.