Two nominees to the Federal Election Commission testified before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee on Wednesday in a short hearing that featured legalistic euphemisms and the invocation of “balls and strikes,” but little partisan rancor. Ann Ravel, a Democrat and chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, and Lee Goodman, a Republican election lawyer, both assured the committee that, if confirmed, they would enforce election and campaign finance laws on the books and seek to improve transparency by updating the FEC’s website. “I’m committed to enforcement of the act,” Goodman said. “I will not call balls and strikes differently for each party.” Ravel, noting the democratic principles her parents had instilled in her, said, “An important aspect of this job is to ensure that people participate in politics.”
The FEC, created in 1975, is the chief enforcer of federal election law and the public source for campaign finance reports and data. By law, no more than three of its six commissioners can represent the same political party. Recently, however, the division between its three Democratic members and its three Republican members has been especially contentious. Over the last several years, about 15 percent of votes, often on important opinions, enforcement actions and regulations, have ended in 3-3 ties.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Rules Committee, said Wednesday, “The FEC is stuck in its own version of partisan gridlock.”
This partisan divide has kept the FEC from adopting new disclosure rules in light of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. That decision freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums on independent political activity with the justification that online disclosure of donors provides citizens with the needed information to make proper decisions in a democracy. One problem is that the FEC had loosened a key disclosure rule in 2007.
Goodman, who holds a deregulatory view of campaign finance laws, said that the tie votes were not a bad thing, but rather reflected that the “law has been changing quickly” and those shifts have led to dispute at the FEC and among election lawyers over the future of First Amendment jurisprudence.
Both nominees deflected questions about a controversial pending change to the FEC’s enforcement manual by saying they needed more information. That change would require the FEC’s enforcement division to seek a vote of the commissioners every time it wanted to share information with the Department of Justice to aid investigations that might involve criminal violations.