The Federal Election Commission, a bipartisan agency charged with enforcing and administering the nation’s campaign laws, will next month zoom past a fairly preposterous milestone given its mission: two years without anyone leading its nonpartisan legal office.
Such a power vacuum persists amid what will assuredly become the longest and most expensive presidential race in U.S. history, with candidates of all political persuasions waltzing along the increasingly blurry boundaries of what’s legal during federal elections and what’s not.
The general counsel stalemate is emblematic of the FEC's broader ideological cold war with itself, waged by commissioners who, for example, spent much of a recent public meeting debating whether they’re actually people — or, alternatively, aliens — for the decidedly odd purpose of petitioning their own gridlocked agency to write new campaign finance rules.
Three FEC employees familiar with the general counsel hiring process tell the Center for Public Integrity that conservative commissioners insist on a person who reliably supports political actors’ ability to campaign with minimal restrictions. And they don’t want a bomb-thrower who frequently clashes with them.
Liberals, for their part, refuse to back someone who won’t press for a more tightly regulated election environment. They’d particularly love a general counsel who believes the law compels all organizations — namely nonprofit groups — to reveal their donors when advocating for or against political candidates.
The FEC had, late last year, identified two potential general counsel candidates after what was already an unprecedentedly long search for a top lawyer.
But FEC commissioners couldn’t agree on one of the candidates — it takes four of the agency’s six commissioners to appoint a general counsel — and never put the person up for a formal vote.
The other general counsel candidate accepted a job elsewhere.
Since then, FEC commissioners have made no meaningful progress. Once advertised on the federal government’s jobs website, the general counsel position is no longer posted. The agency’s top Republican and Democrat acknowledged they aren’t formally considering candidates at the moment, and lawyers aren't exactly clamoring to be hired by an agency deemed by its own leader to be "worse than dysfunctional."
“It’s extremely demoralizing to the agency and the employees of the agency not to have anyone in this position,” said Ann Ravel, a Democrat who’s halfway through her one-year term as the FEC’s chairwoman and generally backs tighter campaign finance rules. “There was no appetite from the majority of the commission to fill that position.”
Matthew Petersen, a Republican and the FEC’s vice chairman, said that “all of us will agree it’s far from ideal not to have this position filled” and that he’ll work with fellow commissioners this summer to determine “what would be the best way now to go about filling it.”