President Obama’s opportunity to mold the FEC

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At midnight Thursday, the terms of Federal Election Commissioner Donald F. McGahn II (a Republican) and FEC Chairman Steven T. Walther (a Democrat) expired. Combined with Democrat Ellen L. Weintraub’s seat — she remains on the commission even though her term expired two years ago — President Obama has the opportunity to make his first three appointments to the six-member commission. Though FEC terms are set for six years, members are free to stay on until replacements are selected by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

While the law requires only that the commission include no more than three members of any political party, presidents have almost always allowed the other party’s congressional leadership to choose three of the six. Now, reform groups are hoping Obama breaks with nearly 35 years of tradition. A coalition including the Campaign Legal Center, Democracy 21, the Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen, and U.S. PIRG has proposed that President Obama create an independent commission to propose potential nominees and that he select only those with a “demonstrated commitment to effective, non-partisan administration and enforcement of the campaign finance laws.”

Josh Zaharoff, deputy program director for Common Cause, argues that, short of complete overhaul, such a proposal would be the best way to ensure real enforcement of election laws. The long-standing existing practice “ensures that the commissioners are likely to be loyal to their political party rather than to election laws and the American people as a whole.”

After seven months without a quorum, the restocked FEC has drawn significant criticism from campaign-finance-reform advocates for its lack of serious, independent enforcement. There have been a series of 3-3 deadlocks on key issues, resulting in a significant increase in the percentage of dismissed cases.

The White House press office did not respond to any inquiry as to how President Obama planned to approach the appointment process.

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