Mar 12, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Biden urged to pack FEC with "pro-enforcement" members

Illustration of a hand holding out a badge wallet for the FEC.  
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Biden is being encouraged to effectively pack the nation's top campaign finance regulator with officials who will more doggedly enforce laws regulating political money, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The notoriously gridlocked Federal Election Commission has rankled reformers for years. Now some are pushing Biden to abandon protocol by sidestepping congressional Republicans and nominating regulators who will more aggressively enforce campaign finance rules.

What's new: A three-page memo, shared with officials in the White House and obtained by Axios, details a strategy for effectively remaking the FEC.

  • The memo's author, a prominent voice in the campaign finance reform world, provided it to Axios on the condition of anonymity and said it was shared with White House staff last month.

How it would work: By law, the six-member FEC can have no more than three commissioners from either major political party.

  • In its current form, though, it technically has just two Democrats. A third member, Commissioner Steven Walther, is widely considered a Democrat-aligned vote but technically an independent.
  • One of two new Republican commissioners, Sean Cooksey, was confirmed in December to a term expiring at the end of April.
  • Biden could, the memo argues, nominate a true Democrat to replace Cooksey, effectively giving the commission a four-member "pro-enforcement majority" while staying within the three-member party limit.

What they're saying: "The president has an immediate and unilateral opportunity to establish a solid and enduring pro-enforcement governing majority," the memo says.

  • Doing so, it adds, will require "bypassing informal and disadvantageous appointment norms" — and is sure to draw the wrath of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

McConnell has long championed less-aggressive campaign finance enforcement.

  • The protocol establishes that presidents consult with the Senate leaders of both parties and nominate FEC commissioners based on their recommendations. Enacting a proposal such as this would blow up that precedent.
  • "All these options represent a serious provocation to Sen. McConnell," the memo warns. "But if President Biden is serious about having campaign finance law enforced during his administration, he must be willing to cross Sen. McConnell one way or another."

The bottom line: It's not clear whether, or how seriously, Biden and his staff are considering the proposal.

  • The White House has backed sweeping election reform legislation that would remake the FEC entirely, but its prospects in the Senate are questionable.
  • Packing the FEC would likely face similar Senate hurdles, particularly in light of McConnell's vehement opposition.
  • The White House declined comment.
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