The U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed Democrat Ann Ravel (the chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission) and Republican Lee Goodman (a Washington, DC lawyer and general counsel for the Republican Party of Virginia) to fill two open seats on the Federal Election Commission on Monday. The pair will become the first new members of the six-person charged with enforcing campaign finance law since four George W. Bush appointees were confirmed in June 2008.
The FEC, by design, has three Democratic seats and three Republican seats, preventing either party from running roughshod over the other. In practice, that deadlock has meant that the commission has been a fairly weak enforcement force since its inception in 1975. Former Common Cause President Scott Harshbarger once observed that, ”This is probably the only agency in Washington that has done from the beginning exactly what it was intended to do, which was to do nothing.”
But Bush’s three Republican appointees — Caroline C. Hunter, Matthew S. Peterson, and the just-departed Donald F. McGahn II, joined to force an unprecedented number of deadlocked votes over their five years together, making the agency’s historically weak campaign finance enforcement almost non-existent. Even as all three continued to serve out expired terms, they chose to ignore the clear text of the 2002 campaign finance law to allowed hundreds of outside group ads to be aired with no real disclosure as to who bankrolled the message. And by waiting as much as five years to take action on obvious violations, they allowed campaigns to do virtually anything without fear of any meaningful penalty.
The trio defended their obstruction in a May op/ed, writing that the Commission’s “harshest critics disregard the agency’s prime enforcement directive: Enforce the law as it is, not as some wish it to be.” This, however, was contradicted by McGahn’s own 2011 admission: “I’m not enforcing the law as Congress passed it… I plead guilty as charged,” but rather he aimed to enforce the law based on his own interpretation of what the Supreme Court would want him to do.
Even with the arrival of these two, the FEC will still have a majority of seats held by Bush appointees whose terms have expired.