With the news, reported Friday by ThinkProgress, that President Obama will apparently have the power to make recess appointments over the coming week, he will have the unique opportunity to fix the Federal Election Commission (FEC). By announcing six recent appointments, he could completely remake the broken elections agency.
Since April 30, the terms of every single commissioner have been expired. Five commissioners appointed by President George W. Bush are permitted to stay on indefinitely until replaced — one seat is vacant. While no more than three members of the Commission can be of either political party, all six must be appointed by the president.
Former Common Cause President Scott Harshbarger once quipped 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 with an unprecedented number of deadlocked votes on even routine enforcement matters, the three current Republican commissioners have managed to make historically weak campaign finance enforcement almost non-existent.
The trio has blocked virtually all enforcement and rejected efforts to provide greater transparency. Commissioner Donald McGahn II even admitted in 2011, “I’m not enforcing the law as Congress passed it… I plead guilty as charged,” arguing that he instead enforced the law based on his own interpretation of what the Supreme Court would want him to do.
While President Obama nominated two candidates last month — one Democrat, one Republican — his sole prior nomination was never even given a Senate confirmation vote after two Senators placed a “hold” on his consideration.
Mary Boyle, vice president for communications of Common Cause, told ThinkProgress that campaign finance reform advocates would like to see six new FEC Commssioners. “President Obama has talked repeatedly about wanting to rein in the corrosive influence of money in our politics and elections. One relatively easy step would be for him to get the FEC functioning again by nominating four more commissioners,” she suggested. “The FEC has languished far too long, through the most monied election in our nation’s history, as candidates and independent groups on both sides of the aisle broke and pushed the boundaries of campaign finance laws. In this post Citizens United world, we need a cop on the beat to administer and enforce campaign finance laws.”
But, if the President names six new people — or even four — to the Commission during Congress’ Independence Day recess, he could make that a reality and avoid obstruction by staunch campaign finance reform opponent Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). With a majority willing to use the agency’s power to provide disclosure and enforce campaign finance law, the agency could shed its reputation as a deadlocked dysfunctional entity and become a powerful force for fair elections.