Published — April 25, 2019

For Federal Election Commission, no quick action on Mueller report findings

Federal Election Commission Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub (front left) watches as a young boy ceremonially gavels in an agency meeting on "Bring Your Child to Work Day," April 25, 2019. Vice Chairman Matthew Petersen appears in the upper right. (Center for Public Integrity/Dave Levinthal)

Agency struggling to determine its role in combating foreign meddling in U.S. political campaigns


The Federal Election Commission’s four remaining commissioners agree on this much: foreign entities who influence U.S. elections are bad.

What they can’t agree on: the role the FEC should play in combating such influence, particularly given the Mueller report’s findings of sustained Russian meddling during Election 2016.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for our democracy,” said FEC Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, at a meeting today at the agency’s headquarters.

Weintraub advocated for the “strongest actions that we can take” on Mueller report findings that are “squarely” in the FEC’s jurisdiction.

Commissioner Caroline Hunter, a Republican, declared foreign infiltration of U.S. elections “not acceptable.” But she wondered aloud what steps the FEC could or should take to defend against it.

“I would hate to give any member of the public false hope — our jurisdiction is limited,” Hunter said.

The FEC is a bipartisan agency that enforces and regulates federal campaign finance laws on a civil, not criminal basis; the U.S. Department of Justice handles criminal campaign finance matters.

Hunter asked Weintraub what elements of the Mueller report she thought fell within the FEC’s purview.

“I’m not going to go through the report page by page with you,” Weintraub replied, then added she hopes all commissioners could work in a “cooperative spirit” to find common ground.

The commissioners agreed to seek the advice of “outside experts” and continue studying the Mueller reports findings. Weintraub noted that key staffers have already scoured the report. “This is the beginning of a discussion,” not an end, Weintraub said.

The FEC has struggled for years to address the issue of foreign involvement in federal political elections; U.S. law generally prohibits foreign governments, corporations and other groups from involving themselves in political campaigns.

During the past year, commissioners couldn’t reach consensus on proposed rules aimed at foreign-influenced U.S. corporations and certain nonprofits that don’t publicly disclose their donors.

It’s also debated for months how to address regulating online political ads — particularly those that may be funded by foreign entities. Commissioners have reached no conclusion.

The six-member FEC only has four members serving on the commission, all of whom continue to serve in “holdover status” despite their six-year terms having expired. President Donald Trump has not floated nominees for two FEC commissioner positions that have been vacant since March 2017 and February 2018 respectively.

Because of the vacancies, the commission must therefore vote unanimously to affirm new rules and regulations, which require four votes. In recent year, commissioners have failed to reach that four-vote threshold on numerous high-profile matters.

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[…] Yet that is precisely the message the FEC appears to be sending. At a recent FEC public meeting that addressed whether the agency would respond to Mueller’s report, GOP Commissioner Caroline Hunter essentially told the public: Don’t get your hopes up. “I would hate to give any member of the public false hope—our jurisdiction is limited,” declared Hunter at the meeting, reported The Center for Public Integrity. […]