FEC pick sparks backlash from Democrats

Without a quorum, the FEC cannot conduct enforcement actions or hold meetings

Sen. Amy Klobuchar opposes a GOP pick to the Federal Election Commission. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Amy Klobuchar opposes a GOP pick to the Federal Election Commission. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 4, 2020 at 4:43pm

Senate Republicans plan to begin considering a GOP nominee to the hobbled Federal Election Commission next week, raising the ire of Democrats over a process that has a long bipartisan tradition.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat who recently suspended her presidential campaign, said Wednesday that she opposes the nomination of Texas lawyer James “Trey” Trainor III. He would replace former Republican Commissioner Matthew Petersen, whose departure last summer left the commission with just three commissioners. That’s one short of the four needed for a quorum.

Without a quorum, the FEC cannot conduct enforcement actions or hold meetings. The agency has continued to process campaign finance reports and make them publicly available.

Klobuchar and others have urged the White House and Senate Republicans to fill vacancies on the commission by nominating a bipartisan pair of candidates.

“It is unacceptable that Republicans are abandoning the tradition of advancing nominees in bipartisan pairs,” Klobuchar, the top Democrat on the Senate Rules and Administration panel, said in a statement. “A fully functioning FEC is critical to safeguarding our political system. We should be working to restore Americans’ trust in our political institutions and with this partisan move, Republicans continue to take us backwards.”

Sen. Roy Blunt, the Missouri Republican who chairs the Rules and Administration panel, said that confirming Trainor would give the FEC its minimum of four commissioners needed to conduct its business.

“Without a quorum, the FEC cannot hold hearings, issue advisory opinions, approve enforcement actions and more,” Blunt said in a statement. “With the 2020 elections underway, it would be particularly irresponsible for Senate Democrats to stand in the way of a fully functioning FEC.”

Outside groups, as well as election lawyers from both sides of the aisle, have called on the White House and senators to fill the vacancies at the FEC, which is designed to have three Democratic picks and three Republican picks. It currently has one Republican, one Democrat and one independent who votes with the Democrats and was a pick of former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid.

[Could take FEC a while to regain a quorum, but don’t expect a ‘Wild West’]

Trainor has questioned the benefit of disclosure of campaign donations, according to numerous news reports. Those past comments are likely to come up in his nomination hearing scheduled for March 10 at the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

Campaign finance watchdogs spoke out in opposition to Trainor.

“They may have a quorum but it may be moot with them just deadlocked 2-2,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, which lobbies for overhauling the campaign finance system. “Here’s a guy who doesn’t believe in the law he’s sworn to uphold. He’s spoken out against disclosure in the past. That does not bode well.”

Vacancy since 2017

Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign finance overhaul group Democracy 21, said the Trump administration “has been sitting on a Democratic nominee who was proposed to the White House” by Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer last summer.

“By taking this approach but leaving two seats empty, President [Donald] Trump and [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell are not only keeping the FEC shorthanded but also refusing to fill a Democratic FEC seat which Trump and McConnell have purposefully kept vacant for 1,100 days,” Wertheimer said, referring to a vacancy created by the departure of Ann Ravel, who left in 2017.

Another former FEC commissioner, Republican Bradley A. Smith, praised Trainor as “a well-qualified practitioner.” Smith chairs the conservative Institute for Free Speech, which has called for a fresh slate of six commissioners.

Even if Trump were to nominate Schumer’s pick, the president could nominate that person to fill one of the two Democratic spots on the commission because the two existing commissioners, Ellen Weintraub and Steven Walther, are on long-expired terms. They may remain on the commission until a successor is confirmed.