Federal Election Commission may sit out 2020 elections

Federal Election Commission may sit out 2020 elections
Federal Election Commission headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The federal agency charged with policing violations of campaign finance laws just lost its power to enforce those laws as the country heads into the 2020 elections.

The Federal Election Commission will have just three members following the departure of Matthew Petersen, who announced on Monday that he will resign his commission post August 31. Federal law requires four or more commissioners to approve new rules or take actions to punish those who violate election law.

The six-member commission has not operated at full strength for some time, and it has often deadlocked along partisan lines on important issues, such as donor disclosure.

The agency was already “dysfunctional,” Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California at Irvine, wrote on Twitter. “But given the threat of foreign intervention in the 2020 elections, the inability of the FEC to act on an emergency basis is BAD NEWS.”

Tiffany Muller, the president of pro-regulation End Citizens United Action Fund, said a weakened FEC “is a recipe for a corrupt government further beholden to big donors and special interests.”

In a statement, the commission’s current Democratic chairwoman, Ellen Weintraub, maintained that the agency will still “shine a strong spotlight” on the finances of the 2020 campaign even if it can’t vote on possible infractions. (Commission members serve one-year rotating stints as chair.)

Weintraub said many functions will continue, despite losing Petersen: Candidates still must file reports detailing their contributions and expenditures with the commission, and the agency’s staff will still take complaints about possible violations.

She urged President Donald Trump to nominate new commissioners and called on the Senate to confirm them quickly. Trump nominated Texas lawyer Trey Trainor to the commission in 2017, but the Senate has not acted on his nomination.

Petersen, a Republican who has served on the commission for 11 years, did not disclose his next career move in his resignation letter.

In 2017, Trump nominated him to the US District Court for the District of Columbia, but Petersen withdrew his nomination after struggling to answer basic legal questions during a Senate confirmation hearing.

Petersen’s departure first was reported by The Washington Examiner.