John J. Sullivan: Federal Election Commissioner in waiting

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One full year after being nominated to the Federal Election Commission, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) lawyer John J. Sullivan is still waiting for Senate confirmation, caught in a dispute over other nominations for the agency. As a result of the standoff, the Obama administration has yet to put any stamp on the FEC.

President Obama, who ran on a platform of Washington reform and improved transparency, declared Sullivan “a staunch advocate for election reform and voter protection” in a statement issued on May 1, 2009. Sullivan’s confirmation to the $153,200-a-year position, one of three seats available for Democrats on the six-member Commission, seemed all but assured after the Senate Rules Committee unanimously endorsed him following a June 2009 panel hearing.

Not so fast, said two veteran campaign finance reform advocates.

Sens. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and John McCain, R-Ariz., placed a “hold” on Sullivan’s nomination last July — essentially serving notice that they would filibuster his confirmation. Two additional FEC commissioners’ terms were up — one a Democratic seat, one a Republican slot — and the duo demanded Obama nominate replacements to fill those seats before they would permit a vote on Sullivan.

The gambit by Feingold and McCain does not seem to have worked. The three FEC commissioners whose terms are expired have stayed on pending their replacements, as the unusual FEC rules explicitly allow. Those three — two Democrats and one Republican — and the other three sitting commissioners are all George W. Bush appointees. The administration has yet to announce nominations for the other two positions. And, while the Senate chose not to send Sullivan’s nomination back to the president at the end of the 2009 session, Senate Majority Harry Reid has made no move to schedule debate or a vote on his nomination.

In fact, this month when Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri unsuccessfully sought unanimous consent to confirm a long list of held-up nominees, she did not include Sullivan. When the Republican Minority Whip inquired as to why his name was skipped over, she blamed a fellow Democrat for the hold.

The Center contacted Sullivan, still working at SEIU, to ask him where the nomination stands. “I honestly don't know,” he replied. He said McCain and Feingold have been clear that their concern is not with him, but with the lack of other nominations for the commission, and noted that he keeps in touch with the White House but “nothing's really changed so there’s not a lot to talk about.”

Yet important questions remain. Why has the administration not nominated anyone to fill the other two seats? Why has Sen. Reid not attempted to force a vote on the Sullivan nomination? Why are Sens. Feingold and McCain continuing to hold up the nomination when doing so has not spurred the administration to action?

Calls to the White House press office and the offices of Senators Feingold, McCain, and Reid were not returned.

“I do my best not to think about it every day, but sometimes I can't help myself,” Sullivan told the Center. He says hopes to join the FEC soon, but when is “certainly beyond my ability to influence or predict at this point.”