WASHINGTON -- All five sitting commissioners at the Federal Election Commission are now serving expired terms, while the sixth seat remains unfilled since a commissioner retired on Feb. 1, 2013.
FEC Commissioner Caroline Hunter's term expired on Tuesday. Until their replacements are confirmed by the Senate, FEC commissioners are permitted to stay on. Former Commissioner Cynthia Bauerly resigned her post in February long after her own term had expired.
President Barack Obama has not successfully appointed a single new commissioner to the FEC. In 2010, his lone appointee withdrew during a contentious confirmation process. Obama's failure to name commissioners has been a sore point for campaign finance reformers, who sent a blistering letter to the White House on Monday excoriating the president for not pushing hard enough to reform the nation's system of campaign funding.
"We recognize that the critical test for an officeholder is not how an official functions within the boundaries of the flawed campaign finance system that exists, but what the officeholder is prepared to do to fix the system," states the letter signed by seven campaign finance reform groups. "You have not met this critical test. In addition to walking away from your commitment to repair the presidential public financing system, you have not submitted any nominees for the FEC to the Senate for more than three years."
By design, the FEC is divided between three Democratic commissioners and three Republican commissioners. In recent years, those six individuals notably struggled to reach bipartisan compromise. The panel routinely found itself in 3-3 split decisions on important issues, including the implementation of disclosure rules, as recommended by the Supreme Court, to cover the new spending released by the court's 2010 Citizens United ruling. (With Bauerly's resignation, the panel now has three Republicans and two Democrats.)
While the president has the power to nominate new commissioners, tradition dictates that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) propose a selection of names for the president to then send to the Senate for confirmation. This situation is complicated by both McConnell's publicly stated opposition to campaign finance rules and the still-lingering memory of a previous FEC commissioner fight.
In 2005, President George W. Bush sought to appoint former Justice Department lawyer Hans von Spakovsky to the FEC. Senate Democrats opposed the controversial von Spakovsky due to his role in promoting inflated fears of voter fraud in minority communities and to allegations of partisanship during his time in the Justice Department. His nomination was blocked by the Democrats, and Bush gave von Spakovsky a recess appointment. Republicans then blocked Democratic nominees to the FEC, and by 2008 there were only two commissioners serving. This left the FEC unable to vote on new rules, initiate investigations, or provide effective oversight and guidance for campaigns.
After von Spakovsky's name was finally withdrawn from nomination in 2008, Reid and McConnell were able to reach an agreement and five new commissioners were confirmed that summer. Their terms have now all expired.
"The ball remains squarely in President Obama's court to nominate new FEC commissioners, as it has since the day he took office," Karen Hobert Flynn, senior vice president for strategy and programs at Common Cause, said in a statement.