New FEC nominees stress compromise but also nod to their camps


After a Senate committee hearing questioning the two new nominees to the Federal Election Commission Wednesday, both nominees emphasized their willingness to compromise with the other, which would be a far cry from the partisan rancor that has increased at the commission in recent years. 

The Democrats on the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, including chairman Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., criticized the deadlock at the FEC. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., called it dysfunctional. Republican members of the panel argued that the partisan setup, with both parties controlling three of the six commission seats, is there is prevent abuse. But senators from both parties urged the nominees to find common ground.

Ravel, center, after the committee hearing

And that is what both the Democratic nominee, Ann Ravel, and Republican Lee Goodman, pledged to achieve as commissioners Wednesday. But they also stuck to their parties' talking points: Goodman, a Washington election lawyer, argued that recent court cases have tied the FEC's hands; Ravel, a California election law regulator, pushed for stronger enforcement.

While the hearing room was packed with observers, only six of the Rules Committee's 18 members showed up for the hearing — a fact that will further delay confirmation of new nominees for the FEC, which has gone five years without a new member. All five of the current commissioners are serving in expired terms. But, because the senators who didn't show at today's confirmation hearing will now have a chance to submit written questions to Ravel and Goodman, the committee will not vote on their confirmation until after Sept. 9, when the Senate is scheduled to return from its five-week August recess. 

The wheels appear to be greased for their confirmation by the full Senate. Asked after the hearing if there was any opposition to the nominees, Schumer said, "There doesn't seem to be any yet."

One of the Republicans on the Rules Committee, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., expressed support for Ravel and Goodman. "I think [the confirmations] and the E-filing both are positive things," referring to the committee's bill to require senators to file campaign finance reports electronically, as their congressional colleagues in the House already do. The Sunlight Foundation supports the measure, which the committee was unable to report to the Senate floor because of the absence of a quorum. However Schumer said he hoped to corral a sufficient number of colleagues on the Senate floor toget the E-filing measure teed up for approved by the committee before the recess scheduled to begin Aug. 2.

MORE: Can new nominees fix a "mired" agency?

Enhancing the FEC nominees prospects for eventual confirmation: Goodman, as per tradition, was suggested to the White House by the Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. 

Goodman, left, with Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

Goodman would replace Commissioner Don McGahn, an outspoken advocate for reducing campaign finance regulations who has frequently tangled with the FEC's Democratic chair, Ellen Weintraub. The GOP nominee promised to serve with "civility toward my colleagues."

But he also offered many nods to the Republican view — articulated most forcefully on the commission by McGahn — that the FEC overregulates. Goodman noted that "many grassroots organizations cannot afford to hire lawyers to guide them through a complex set of regulations."

And he echoed the view of many conservative campaign finance lawyers that the FEC's history of deadlocked votes are a natural result of court cases such as the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.

“One reason we’ve been seeing an increase in 3-3 splits in recent years is not necessarily because of obstruction but because the law has been changing at a rapid pace.”

Ravel, who as chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission sued a nonprofit group last year for violating campaign disclosure rules in California, saw it differently, blaming the FEC's frequent stalemates for a "public perception" that "campaign finance laws have not been enforced sufficiently." 

Ravel said she would work "very assiduously" at enforcing those laws. But she also played to her Republican audience, by saying that enforcement had to be balanced with First Amendment concerns.

Neither would commit to an opinion on the current controversial move by Republican FEC members to make it harder for the agency's investigators to communicate with Department of Justice staffers about investigations. The GOP commissioners may ask for a vote on the matter at Thursday's open FEC meeting. But both nominees gave a wink to their respective camps on the issue.

Ravel said that the California agency she heads worked closely with Justice and the FBI on a campaign theft case and it "worked out very well."

Goodman said it would be important to know if the FEC's legal staff was informing the commissioners of its discussions with other federal investigators before making a decision about whether the enforcement practices should be changed.

(Photo credits: Keenan Steiner/Sunlight Foundation)