WASHINGTON (CN) — The Federal Election Commission could finally be on track to functionality as nominees for the agency tasked with rooting out campaign-finance fraud concluded a long-awaited confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
Unable to muster a quorum — at least six members are supposed to be present to vote on or address complaints — the commission was missing in action during the rigors of the 2020 campaign season.
The body has just three members: Republican Commissioner Trey Trainor, Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, and Commissioner Steven Walther, an independent who receives Democratic backing. FEC rules mandate that the body have Democrats and Republicans represented equally.
With only a skeleton staff for the last year, however, the commission has a growing backlog of more than 300 complaints by groups either seeking more information on or investigations of potential dark money in federal elections among other infractions.
In the face of what was the most expensive U.S. federal election in American history in 2020, the FEC was toothless without the requisite members.
Though he will not get a second term to see their efforts, President Donald Trump put forward the three nominees who appeared Wednesday before the Senate Administration Committee: two Republicans, Sean Cooksey and Allen Dickerson, and one Democrat, Shana Broussard.
The latter pick would be the first Black member of the commission since its inception in the fallout of the Watergate scandal in 1975. An FEC attorney today, Broussard’s 25 years of experience includes previous work at the IRS and at the Office of General Counsel as an enforcement attorney.
Cooksey, who has no previous background or ties to the FEC, is an aide to Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican often loyal to President Trump. He moved to Hawley’s office after a stint working as Republican Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s deputy counsel. Cooksey is also a donor to the Federalist Society’s James Madison Club and former clerk for the Houston appellate judge Jery Smith.
Allen Dickerson, is the legal director of the Institute of Free Speech, contributor to the Federalist Society, and attorney for 20 years specializing in First Amendment and campaign finance law at Kirkland & Ellis.
If confirmed by the full Senate, their appointments could create some obstacles for the incoming President-elect Joe Biden’s designs on achieving a more tailored or Democrat-friendly FEC plurality.
But for both Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, who chairs the Senate Administration Committee, and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the committee’s vicechair, an easy agreement could be had on Wednesday: As the country moves further away from the last election and begins running down the clock until the next one, restoring the FEC to operational status is paramount.
“A full slate [of commissioners] means the FEC is not hobbled and is able to continue its work when a single commissioner departs from the agency,” Blunt said.
Klobuchar seconded Blunt before later also noting that in the year since a quorum has existed, spending records in political campaigns have reached all-time highs. If ever there were a year for the FEC to be functional, she argued, it was this one.
“Spending for the 2020 election cycle was $14 billion. That’s double the 2016 election cycle, and that includes $2.6 billion in outside spending by super PACS, political parties and dark money groups,” Klobuchar said. “In order for our democracy to work for the people, we need strong rules on campaign spending.”
Whether the nominees would be willing to enforce strong, ethical rules as commissioners underpinned nearly all of Wednesday’s questioning. Senator Tom Udall wanted at least one matter sorted out quickly.
The New Mexico Democrat asked whether Broussard, Cooksey or Dickerson today believe the baseless accusations by President Donald Trump that his defeat in the 2020 election was the result of widespread voter fraud.
“I do not have any personal evidence of widespread voter fraud,” Cooksey said. “I know there are investigations, but I haven’t followed it myself and can’t speak to it in detail.”
Dickerson agreed with Cooksey before offering a light admonishment to senators.
“The only thing I would add is to remind the committee, emphatically: The FEC has no role in election administration or in judging electoral outcomes, and I think it is important the FEC remain within its four corners,” he said.
In kind, Udall, a longtime lawmaker in both the House and Senate replied: “But remember, as officials and in official positions, you’re going to be asked and it is important for people to speak truth to power.”
Broussard’s response was simple: Yes, she, told the committee, she believed Democrat Joe Biden won the election fairly.
Senator Klobuchar also probed: Would credible public reports featuring allegations or clues to potential campaign-finance fraud be enough for the FEC to consider opening an investigation? And in terms of recusal, would they commit to adhering to bowing out of any investigation that might contain a conflict of interest?
To a nominee, they agreed.
“If there is sufficient information available in the complaint, there is a reason to look further and I would support any recommendations,” Broussard said.
It is expected all three will be approved by the full Senate before the year’s end. If they are not, the confirmation process would have to start all over again and that would be unfavorable to the current Trump administration since it would position President-elect Biden to scrap some or all of the nominees.
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