This article was co-published by the Buffalo News.
The 2020 presidential race has begun. Super PACs and party committees are raising and spending gobs of cash. The threat of foreigners infiltrating U.S. political campaigns looms.
And the agency charged with enforcing and regulating the nation’s campaign finance laws isn’t functioning — a casualty of the federal government’s partial shutdown over funding for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. The shutdown is now 14 days old with no end in sight.
“This is not the time for the FEC to be sidelined,” said Ellen Weintraub, a Democratic commissioner since 2002 who this year is serving a one-year term as chairwoman. “We’re just stuck, and there’s nothing in our building that has anything to do with walls.”
Weintraub declined to blame either President Donald Trump or her fellow Democrats in Congress for the stalemate.
“But the result is just not good. It’s incredibly wasteful and unproductive. It’s the taxpayers probably paying a lot of people not to work,” she said.
The FEC’s shutdown plan indicates that the agency has furloughed about 90 percent of its roughly 300-member workforce.
So long as the FEC is inoperative, the agency cannot investigate complaints or probe political committees suspected of wrongdoing. It cannot penalize political scofflaws. The commission will likely cancel two meetings scheduled for next week. And it isn’t attending to more routine functions, either, such as answering questions from officials at any of the thousands of federally registered political committees required to file regular financial disclosures with the FEC.
“There’s no support for people who are just trying to comply with the law,” Weintraub noted.
Electronic campaign finance filings should continue to automatically appear on the FEC’s website for public consumption, but documents submitted to the FEC on paper, or any public documents the agency would create itself, will not.
FEC Vice Chairman Matthew Petersen, R, did not respond to inquiries.
The current government shutdown hasn’t yet resulted in a repeat of a 2013 closure, when the entire FEC staff was furloughed save for the commissioners themselves. Chinese hackers immediately broke into the FEC’s computer systems, as not a single commission employee had been deemed “necessary to the prevention of imminent threats” to federal property. This time around, a skeleton staff of employees is in place to defend against such activity, “and we’re in a better situation than we were last time,” Weintraub said.
The federal government’s current budgetary histrionics are just the latest in a series of challenges for the FEC. Commissioners are often ideologically divided to the point of legal stalemates, particularly on high-profile matters, and the agency has been operating on the edge of another kind of precipice since February.
That’s when Republican Commissioner Lee Goodman resigned, leaving the six-member commission with just four members — the minimum number required for a “quorum.”
The FEC must have a quorum to attend to its most significant responsibilities, including conducting official public meetings and official legal guidance to political actors.
Of the four remaining commissioners, all have long overstayed their six-year terms, serving in “holdover status” because Trump, as well as President Barack Obama before him, did not replace them.
Collectively, the FEC’s commissioners — Weintraub, Petersen, Republican Caroline Hunter and independent Steven Walther — have now served 35 years past their terms’ expirations.
Trump has offered no nominee to replace Goodman or Ann Ravel, a Democrat who resigned in March 2017.
The president’s lone FEC nominee — Texas attorney Trey Trainor, who aided Trump’s presidential campaign — has gone more than 15 months without even receiving a confirmation hearing from the U.S. Senate Rules Committee, say nothing of a full Senate confirmation vote.
Trainor was slated to replace Petersen, who Trump nominated to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Petersen withdrew in December 2017 shortly after a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing where he struggled or failed to answer numerous questions.
But on Thursday, the newly seated U.S. Senate returned Trainor’s nomination to Trump, according to congressional records. This means Trump must renominate Trainor or move on to another nominee, if he does at all.
Update, Jan. 17, 2019: Trump on Jan. 16 again nominated Trainor to the FEC to fill the seat now occupied by Petersen. This is the third time Trump has nominated Trainor and sent the nomination to the U.S. Senate for consideration.