With the end of the year, the six federal election commissioners are preparing to play their annual game of musical chairs. That means a new chair of the commission for 2013. She has lots she wants to accomplish.
Near the top of Commissioner Ellen Weintraub's wish list: new regulations for both super PACs and domestic subsidiaries of foreign firms that make campaign contributions.
But Weintraub, the current vice chair who takes the commission reins on Jan. 1, isn't holding her breath. The perennially deadlocked commission has had difficulty reaching consensus on far less contentious issues.
"Hope springs eternal," Weintraub said with a smile in an interview after her colleagues formally voted her into the chairmanship at Thursday's meeting. "I think the commission ought to address these issues…Whether we'll be able to take them on is an entirely different question."
Small ball issues — akin to allowing text message contributions to political committees, as it did this year — may be the most the FEC can get done in 2013. Made up of three Republican and three Democratic commissioners, the FEC been plagued by partisan deadlock in recent years and campaign finance reformers have called the commission ineffective.
In fact, the game of musical chairs may make the partisan bickering worse. Weintraub, who already served as chair once in 2003 and will replace GOP chair Caroline Hunter, is the most vocal liberal commissioner and she does not shy away from criticizing her Republican counterparts. The incoming vice-chair is Republican Donald McGahn, Weintraub's frequent nemesis and a constant voice for loosening campaign finance regulations. Weintraub, however, doesn't think the title change will have much of an impact. "Our views are well known," she said. The chair has the ability to set commissioners' agenda but the shift does not change the FEC's balance of power at all.
Regarding her 2013 agenda, she noted that the FEC has failed to write rules after the Supreme Court's landmark Citizens United ruling, which, along with lower court rulings, has allowed for unlimited contributions and spending on elections — as long as the money does not go directly to candidates' campaign coffers.
Weintraub is also concerned about the level of control foreign companies may have of domestic subsidiaries. The subsidiary companies are allowed to make contributions to influence U.S. elections, even though foreign contributions are prohibited. The issue has not been addressed by the commission since Citizens United, which opened the door for much larger donations by corporations.
Enforcement is another of her top priorities. The FEC faced a record number of complaints during the 2012 election, she said, and she is concerned that the commission is not effectively enforcing the law.
Weintraub's term has technically expired, along with those of four of her colleagues on the commission. She said she's prepared to leave her post at any time. She has already packed her bags three times in the past, she said, when she thought she would be replaced. A number of outside groups that advocate for campaign finance reform (including the Sunlight Foundation) have asked President Obama to replace the commissioners as a way of breaking the partisan deadlock. But the one FEC nominee Obama did propose, in 2009, eventually withdrew his name from consideration because the Senate — where Republicans can tie up presidential initiatives by filibuster — refused to act on his nomination.