The Federal Election Commission can no longer investigate any campaign finance violations as we head into the 2020 elections.
The Federal Election Commission, which oversees campaign finance laws, just functionally shut down, thanks to the resignation of one of its commissioners, Matthew Petersen. His departure leaves the FEC with only three members, which isn't a quorum, meaning it can't conduct any official business.
As Paul S. Ryan of Common Cause, a government watchdog group, put it, the FEC "will now pretty much grind to a halt." And, as elections expert Rick Hasen tweeted, "given the threat of foreign intervention in the 2020 elections, the inability of the FEC to act on an emergency basis is BAD NEWS."
Neither Ryan nor Hasen is exaggerating. Without a quorum, the commission can't investigate campaign finance violations or impose any fines on campaigns that break the rules. It can't audit campaign committees. It can't provide guidance on areas of campaign finance law that might be tough for candidates to understand. It can't even meet.
It isn't that the loss of Petersen himself is particularly problematic. Petersen, a Republican, is not terribly qualified. In 2017, Trump tapped him for a U.S. District Court seat, but Petersen withdrew his name after it became clear during his hearing that he couldn't answer, as one Georgetown law professor put it, questions "a second year law student" could. It's simply that his departure creates a vacuum that can't be filled until Trump nominates, and the Republican-controlled Senate confirms, another commissioner.
Even with a quorum, the FEC was already "dysfunctional and deadlocked," as Hasen put it. That's because the GOP members of the commission refused to investigate matters that implicated other Republicans. For example, there's credible evidence that the National Rifle Association, which heavily backed Trump and other GOP candidates in 2016, served as a conduit for illegal Russian money flowing into American elections. However, the FEC rejected investigating that because the Republican commissioners refused to do so.
Now, the GOP absolutely gets its way, as there can be no investigations at all.
Trump has shown no real inclination to fill the empty commissioner slots. Perhaps that's because Trump spent 2016 committing campaign finance violations so egregious they rose to the level of crimes. He was already implicated as an unnamed co-conspirator in the scheme to hide payoffs to two of his mistresses. Of course, his former attorney Michael Cohen went to prison for those actions because criminal charges were brought. Trump remains free even though he was equally culpable in that violation, if not more so, and he doesn't even view campaign finance violations as a crime.
The modern GOP has become quite adept at throwing sand in the gears of government to ensure nothing gets done. This latest incident will have ramifications for years to come.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.