The United States is headed into what promises to be among the most contentious and expensive campaign cycles in modern history - with foreign and domestic actors eager to make mischief - without the chief elections cop on the beat.
Sure, presidents are busy people, but in the interest of safeguarding democracy, President Trump needs to move a neglected item toward the top of his to-do list: put forward nominees to fill the vacancies at the Federal Election Commission - and push the Senate to confirm them.
Recently, the vice chairman of the F.E.C., Matthew Petersen, announced that he was stepping down. Along with two pre-existing vacancies, this will shrink what should be a six-member board to three members - one short of the quorum required to hold meetings and perform many basic functions.
The agency’s chairwoman, Ellen Weintraub, offered assurances that her team “will still be able to shine a strong spotlight on the finances of the 2020 campaign.” Staff members will continue to post campaigns’ disclosure forms, accept complaints and fulfill other administrative duties.
But, without four commissioners, the agency’s regulation and enforcement of campaign finance laws - already badly compromised - will largely grind to a halt. The board will no longer have the ability to open new investigations. It will not be able to rule on whether laws have been broken, much less what penalties to impose. It will not be able to adopt new safeguards, such as to improve the transparency of online political advertising. Somewhere in Russia, the trolls responsible for the social-media chicanery of 2016 are smiling.
The harsh truth is that the commission has been a model of dysfunction for over a decade. Among the problems: Squabbling between Republican and Democratic commissioners increasingly results in gridlock over enforcing laws; funding has long been stagnant; and poor staff morale has created a critical “brain drain.” The Center for Public Integrity has described the agency as “rotting from the inside out.”
That is an argument for reforming this vital agency, not letting it die.
Even in its denuded state, the F.E.C. could occasionally get the job done. This spring, it levied fines totaling $940,000 in a case involving a Chinese-owned corporation that had illegally funneled $1.3 million through an American subsidiary into a political action committee supporting Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential candidacy. The action not only held the involved parties accountable, it also sent a message that “there are rules, and they will be enforced,” said Trevor Potter, a former commission chairman and the president of the Campaign Legal Center, the watchdog group that filed the complaint.
The president should never have let the situation reach this point. One Democratic seat has been vacant since April 2017, a Republican seat since February 2018. Mr. Trump has named only one nominee, Trey Trainor - a Republican whose nomination in September 2017 has been effectively ignored by the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.
It’s unsurprising that keeping the election panel well staffed is not among Mr. McConnell’s priorities. His antipathy toward campaign-finance regulation is legendary. To kick-start this process, Mr. Trump will need to apply a bit of pressure - and he will need to work with Senate Democrats and submit more than one nomination.
Why? The way commissioners typically get confirmed is for the president, in consultation with congressional leaders, to refer nominees in pairs, one from each party. This reduces the incentive for either team to stonewall. Mr. Trump’s sending up a lone name was considered posturing, and no one seriously expected Mr. McConnell to act. With the agency now facing paralysis, the White House must huddle with lawmakers to find nominees whom everyone can live with, and the confirmations need to be fast-tracked.
This has happened before. In 2008, the Federal Election Commission found itself without a quorum. With a presidential election approaching, lawmakers pushed past their differences and confirmed five new commissioners. Something similar needs to happen now.
The president could submit up to six nominations. On top of the vacancies, the terms of the three remaining commissioners have expired, though the members can stay on until their successors are confirmed. But at the very least the vacancies should be filled so that America’s elections monitor can get back to work.
As Mr. Potter warned, “Non-action here is an invitation to more foreign interference in elections.”