A Senate committee voted along party lines to advance the nomination of Trey Trainor to the agency that enforces campaign finance laws.
The Federal Election Commission moved one step closer to regaining a quorum on Thursday as a Senate committee advanced President Trump’s Republican nominee for one of three vacancies at the FEC. However, good government experts fear the political operative will undermine the agency’s mission if confirmed.
After three nomination attempts by President Trump since 2017, the Senate Rules and Administration Committee voted 9-1 to advance the nomination of Texas attorney Trey Trainor, to the full Senate for a vote. Trainor, who specializes in election and first amendment law and serves as assistant general counsel to the Republican Party of Texas, served as counsel to the platform committee at the Republican National Convention in 2016. He also served briefly as special assistant to former Defense Secretary James Mattis during the Trump administration’s transition.
The six-member commission responsible for enforcing the nation’s campaign finance laws must have at least four members for a quorum, but since the resignation of Vice Chairman Matthew Petersen eight months ago it has just three, and thus is unable to perform most of its duties.
“I will approach my work at the FEC in an objective and methodical manner. I fully recognize that the touchstone for all regulation of political speech is the First Amendment, and that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that our current campaign finance regulations, particularly the disclosure regime, are an allowable exception to the First Amendment for the purpose of deterring corruption,” Trainor said during the hearing. “ I will always look to the statutes as passed by Congress and adjudicated by the courts as my guide in reviewing the matters that come before me at the FEC to ensure that all parties are treated fairly and impartially.
While many good government groups have been calling on the president and congressional leadership to restore a quorum, many were not swayed from their long-held opposition of Trainor.
“[The Senate committee] should not endorse Trey Trainor for FEC commissioner,” tweeted Campaign Legal Center President Trevor Potter, who is a former FEC chairman, on Wednesday. “We need FEC commissioners committed to disclosure & other campaign finance laws.” When Trainor testified before the committee in March, Potter wrote in The Daily Kos:
“In recent years, opponents of campaign finance laws have supported the nomination of FEC commissioners who, like Trainor, have a record of being opposed to the laws the agency enforces. As a result, the FEC has routinely failed to enforce the laws designed to hold candidates accountable. The failure of the agency to enforce campaign finance laws has resulted in an explosion in secret spending, and our politics increasingly rigged in favor of special interests. For the FEC to do its job to protect the voices of all voters, not just special interests, the agency and the nomination process must be reformed.”
The nonprofit IssueOne said in a statement on Thursday that while it is critical the FEC regain its quorum during an election year and pandemic, Trainor is the wrong choice. “In his comments at his confirmation hearing, Trey Trainor demonstrated that he does not support common-sense enforcement of our election laws,” said Meredith McGehee, IssueOne executive director.
Also, in his March testimony Trainor “professed a belief that ‘the agency is, in fact, [already] enforcing the law,’ suggested that dark money groups are already disclosing their donors to the FEC, argued that issue ads don’t fall within the purview of the commission, and declined to support new transparency rules,” said the nonprofit. “His prior stance on the regulation of dark money and his support for defunding Texas’s equivalent of the FEC raise even further concerns about his commitment to enforcing the law.”
Other groups that have raised questions about Trainor include Common Cause, a grassroots watchdog that advocates for accountability in democracy, and End Citizens United, a grassroots political action committee that opposes big money in politics.
The Center for Public Integrity Editor-at-Large Dave Levinthal said that even if Trainor is approved, the agency will still face numerous challenges. Those include a growing backlog of cases, vacancies in senior positions (such as permanent general counsel) and the four commissioners would have to vote together to approve decisions, which has been a roadblock in the past. The Senate has a tradition of voting on Democrat and Republican nominees for the commission at the same time, but so far the president has not tapped a Democrat for one of the open seats.
“The commission will restart its operations in rough shape,” said Levinthal. “And that's not even counting that it's doing so in the midst of a pandemic.”