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Government shutdown shrinks FEC to just four employees

Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub says almost every agency function has been idled

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Federal Election Commission Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub isn't required to stay home today in the midst of a government shutdown. But there's hardly a point to her visiting the agency's office at 999 E. St. NW in downtown Washington, D.C.

"I'd literally be the one turning the lights on," said Weintraub, one of just four FEC employees among 339 the government has deemed "essential" during the shutdown. "My entire staff has been furloughed, so working — it's what I can do on my own, along with my three colleagues on the commission."

And that's not much.

Phone calls to agency workers ring to voicemails, emails go unreturned and audits and enforcement cases and investigations are on ice until further notice.

As Tuesday afternoon arrived, the FEC also appeared to stop uploading documents for public consumption, from candidate income and expenditure reports to notifications of political action committee formations. 

People may attempt to file reports during the shutdown, but the FEC's computer systems only have so much capacity. If they crash, there's nobody around to fix them.

(Update, Oct. 2, 2013, 9:56 a.m.: The FEC is again publishing some electronic filings, such as quarterly campaign finance reports filed Tuesday, although it's unclear how long this will last.)

"I don't know how to personally post the reports — I'm a little out of my league there," said Weintraub, adding that she'll personally prepare for upcoming agency meetings and review files during the shutdown. "The public will have to go without disclosures until we open back up."

Weintraub also noted that the FEC won't penalize committees who find they can't file reports on time, although they'll have to submit them within 24 hours of the government starting back up.

"We can't penalize people for doing what can't be done," she said.

The FEC has faced sustained criticism that it's one of the government's more dysfunctional agencies, prone to deadlocking on high-profile cases and skilled at meting out justice with sloth-like urgency. The shutdown, therefore, has prompted some agency observers to chide the FEC on Twitter, joking that the government shutdown will mimick the status quo.

But Weintraub warns that the public's right to information about elections has already been compromised. She is likewise "extremely frustrated on behalf of the staff" that the shutdown is occuring.

"If you're a GS9 working hard from paycheck to paycheck, it's really a hardship, and it's very unfortunate," Weintraub said of the shutdown. "I very much hope it doesn't last that long."

There are a handful of FEC employees who may find themselves pressed back into service on an emergency basis this week or next: attorneys who are consulting with the Office of the Solicitor General, which is arguing on behalf of the election agency in the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.

Oral arguments in the case, which could potentially give wealthy Americans the ability to donate money to more political candidates and committees, are scheduled for next Tuesday — shutdown or no shutdown.

The typically six-member commission currently has two vacancies. Democrat Ann Ravel and Republican Lee Goodman were last week confirmed by the Senate, but neither is expected to begin their term until later this month. By law, the commissioners themselves cannot be furloughed.