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Finally With a Quorum, Federal Election Commission Faces ‘Extensive Backlog of Cases’

The nation’s campaign finance watchdog gets back to work after being hamstrung the last eight and a half months.

After months of inaction and with the November presidential election bearing down, the Federal Election Commission will finally be able to get down to business. But former FEC officials and other experts agree that, despite regaining its quorum, the agency faces daunting challenges, including a huge backlog of unresolved cases. 

On Tuesday evening, the Senate voted 49 to 43, along party lines, to confirm Texas attorney Trey Trainor as an FEC commissioner, giving the body a fourth voting member, required for its proceedings to be valid. For over eight months, the FEC, which oversees the nation’s campaign finance laws, was unable to launch investigations, issue advisory opinions, publicize rules or decide enforcement cases. 

Democratic FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub told Government Executive she hopes to have a productive relationship with Trainor and is ready to “roll up my sleeves and work with all my colleagues to get the important work of this agency done." She said there are 350 matters on the agency’s enforcement docket and 227 items waiting for commission action.

“The partially restored FEC is tasked with revisiting an extensive backlog of cases and ongoing investigations ahead of the 2020 election,” said the Center for Responsive Politics. “But Democrats and Republicans on the ideologically divided commission typically disagree on how to enforce campaign finance laws and the addition of Trainor won’t change that.” 

Other experts and former FEC officials echoed similar sentiments. Meredith McGehee, executive director of IssueOne, a nonprofit that seeks to reduce the influence of money in politics, said Tuesday she hopes Trainor will “faithfully uphold the anti-corruption laws” and “work with his colleagues to swiftly resolve the backlog of complaints and advisory opinion requests before the FEC, despite the concerns raised about his qualifications” due to his views on campaign finance enforcement and support for defunding Texas’s FEC equivalent. 

This “does not change the fact that there is still much work to be done to fix the watchdog tasked with safeguarding the integrity of campaigns,” she said, and “doesn’t mean that the commission will stop being gridlocked over the fundamental issue of whether our campaign finance laws should be enforced.” she said. 

“Despite regaining a quorum, the FEC will likely stay hopelessly broken as an enforcer of our nation’s election laws,” McGehee said.

Concerns about the commission’s functionality were shared across the ideological spectrum. Institute for Free Speech Chairman and former FEC Chair Bradley Smith praised Trainor’s confirmation, but said, “unfortunately, with just four commissioners, any one member can still prevent the commission from acting” on decisions. He called on President Trump to nominate additional commissioners, and for the Senate to confirm them, to restore the commission to its full membership of six. 

Deputy Director of the Brennan Center’s Election Reform Program Daniel Weiner, who is a former FEC senior staffer, predicted gridlock would continue to hinder the agency’s productivity. “The two parties are just far more polarized on campaign finance and democracy issues generally, than they were when the FEC was created” in 1974, he said. However, he hopes the FEC can find “common ground” on cases involving combating foreign interference in elections and rulemaking that would improve transparency for online political ads. 

The FEC is getting back to normal operations during abnormal times. It had to alter the way it does business to heed public health guidance during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Most of the staff is teleworking and mail processing was suspended, although the commission  said “most agency operations are unaffected.” 

FEC Chair Caroline Hunter, a Republican, and Vice Chair Steven Walther, an Independent, did not immediately respond to Government Executive for comment.