In his home state of Texas, James “Trey” Trainor worked to undermine and defund the Ethics Commission tasked with regulating campaign finance laws. Yet, on March 10 he will go before the Senate as a nominee for the Federal Election Commission (FEC) – the only government agency solely responsible for enforcing the campaign finance laws for the U.S. House, Senate and presidency.
Why would someone who has gone on the record as being adamantly opposed to the responsibilities of an agency get nominated to serve as a commissioner of that agency?
The cynical, but obvious answer is: to render the agency toothless.
In recent years, opponents of campaign finance laws have supported the nomination of FEC commissioners who, like Trainor, have a record of being opposed to the laws the agency enforces. As a result, the FEC has routinely failed to enforce the laws designed to hold candidates accountable. The failure of the agency to enforce campaign finance laws has resulted in an explosion in secret spending, and our politics increasingly rigged in favor of special interests. For the FEC to do its job to protect the voices of all voters, not just special interests, the agency and the nomination process must be reformed.
In a poll commissioned by Campaign Legal Center (CLC), 71% of voters across partisan lines said that they would like the FEC to take a more active role in enforcing campaign finance laws. If Trainor is confirmed as the new FEC commissioner, it is almost guaranteed that instead of taking a more active role, the agency will continue to fail to protect and inform voters. In our elections we will continue to see illegal foreign spending, unlimited secret spending by wealthy special interests and corporate-funded super PACs working hand in hand with the candidates they support.
For example, the FEC deadlocked on a vote to investigate a shell corporation that gave nearly $1 million to a super PAC. It was later discovered that a foreign criminal had used the shell corporation to launder the contribution to that super PAC.
The power of wealthy special interests money in our politics threatens our First Amendment right to have our voices heard. We need a strong FEC to protect our First Amendment rights.
There are some solutions to fix the FEC to make the agency functional so it can do its job to enforce campaign finance laws.
Right now, the President could nominate, and the Senate could confirm, FEC commissioners who believe in the agency’s mission (unlike Trainor). Recent administrations, both Democrat and Republican, have not prioritized the nomination of committed commissioners, but the President has a significant opportunity to strengthen the FEC and reduce political corruption by nominating FEC commissioners who will actually uphold the mission of the agency.
Looking forward, Congress should pass a new law restructuring the FEC to prevent deadlocks and increase accountability. The “For the People Act,” also known as HR 1, which already passed the House, includes an amendment to the law so that less than a majority of FEC commissioners could no longer make significant decisions on behalf of the agency. It also includes changing the number of commissioners to avoid deadlocks and reforming the commissioner selection process to increase the likelihood that FEC commissioners would be committed to the agency.
The current nomination process promises only to perpetuate the existing dysfunction at the FEC. Enforcing transparency laws is a key part of the FEC’s mission, but Trainor has questioned the value of disclosing political donors, and falsely claimed the Supreme Court endorsed secret political spending when it has done precisely the opposite.
The integrity of political campaigns is fundamental to the protection of our democracy. The unlimited secret spending and other campaign finance violations we are experiencing challenge the foundation of our democracy, taking it away from the people and placing it in the hands of wealthy special interests and foreign interests. Congress has the power to restructure the FEC and the nomination process to safeguard the agency against the divides that have produced an agency that fails to do its job to enforce campaign finance laws and protect the voices of voters.
About the author:
Trevor Potter is President of Campaign Legal Center (CLC), a nonpartisan legal services organization that works to advance a more transparent and accountable political system. Potter is a former Republican Commissioner and Chair of the Federal Election Commission.