U.S. Federal Election Commission Commissioner Ellen Weintraub testifies on Capitol Hill in May.

U.S. Federal Election Commission Commissioner Ellen Weintraub testifies on Capitol Hill in May. Carolyn Kaster/AP

Federal Election Commission Faces Growing Backlog in Enforcement Docket

A long-standing problem is exacerbated by the FEC’s recent loss of a quorum.

As the 2020 election campaigns heat up, the agency responsible for enforcing the nation’s campaign finance laws has a growing backlog of enforcement cases that it can’t resolve because it lacks a quorum. 

The backlog has been a persistent problem for the Federal Election Commission, but now it’s worsening following the September resignation of Vice Chairman Matthew Petersen, whose departure has hamstrung the commission's board, which needs four members to carry out its responsibilities. “Work on the enforcement docket can proceed, but nothing can get resolved,” according to Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub’s written testimony for a House Administration Committee hearing that was scheduled for last week, but was postponed. She said the FEC was making progress on the backlog before losing its quorum, but now it can’t launch new investigations. 

As of Sept. 1, the FEC had 275 cases on the docket, over 30 of which involved alleged violations of the law prohibiting foreign nationals from contributing to American elections, an issue in the spotlight recently. Commission staff have finalized recommendations on more than 60 of the 275 cases, but the FEC can’t act on them without a quorum. The commission is supposed to have a six-member board, and it needs four members for its proceedings to be valid. It has just three commissioners currently, preventing it from launching investigations, issuing advisory opinions, publicizing rules and making decisions on enforcement actions.

“The Federal Election Commission was already broken, but now it is in shambles and can’t even perform the most basic law-enforcement functions as the most expensive election in history continues full steam ahead,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, a nonprofit that seeks to reduce the influence of money in politics. 

The FEC’s enforcement division, which is responsible for enforcing federal campaign finance laws, has lost over 30% of its staff since 2010, when the division had 59 employees, according to Weintraub. “If we do not have enough Enforcement Division staff to process our caseload, we will never make progress in clearing our docket,” she told lawmakers on the House Administration Committee in May. “We are not only not making progress on staffing levels, we are falling further behind.” 

There are also a number of key leadership vacancies. Currently, the general counsel and associate general counsel for enforcement positions are filled by acting officials, while the deputy inspector general, accounting director, and deputy staff director for the chief communications officer positions are vacant, and several officials are serving in more than one capacity. 

Despite the vacancies, commissioners, in a joint statement for the postponed hearing, said,  “Agency staff remains ready to help committees and the public understand and comply with the law.”