AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The Federal Election Commission can't do its job. That's because one of its commissioners, Matthew Petersen, just resigned. It leaves the FEC with only three members instead of six, meaning they lack a quorum. And it's the latest challenge for the agency that's been hamstrung for more than a decade. Dave Levinthal is a senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity. He joins us in the studio to explain.
Welcome to the program.
DAVE LEVINTHAL: Hey. Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: All right. First, remind everybody what the Federal Election Commission does.
LEVINTHAL: The Federal Election Commission was created in the aftermath of Watergate to be a cop on the beat, making sure that political committees and political candidates were abiding by federal campaign finance law. That always hasn't worked out in practice. There's a lot of gridlock. There's a lot of deadlocks, and the commissioners don't always agree on even what the law says. And of course, now we're facing the teeth of an election season. We have foreign influence issues, of course, that have dominated the headlines. And the FEC theoretically should be on the vanguard of that and is very much going to be on the sidelines going forward, at least for the next many weeks, potentially months.
CORNISH: And yet, one of the commissioners - as we said, Matthew Petersen - has resigned. Has he said why? And what does that mean for the work that this group can do?
LEVINTHAL: Commissioner Petersen, who's a Republican - he's been there for more than 11 years, and he hasn't given a specific reason as to why he is leaving. But he, along with the remaining commissioners - they've been there many, many years beyond the expiration of their individual terms. Now, the president of the United States, in conjunction with the U.S. Senate, are supposed to nominate and appoint new commissioners. And they largely have not done that for many years. This goes back to George W. Bush, Barack Obama and now Donald Trump. The ball is in his court. Basically, if you don't have four commissioners at the FEC, you can't do high-level business. And that means a lot of things. You can't conduct meetings. You can't enforce campaign finance laws. You can't punish anyone for breaking the law. And you can't create any new rules or regulations in order to make sure that all the political candidates and all the political action committees out there are abiding by the law as it's written.
CORNISH: What are the implications of this heading into an election season?
LEVINTHAL: The implications could be sweeping, and that largely depends on how long this sort of defacto semi-shutdown actually goes on. If we're talking months, then you basically have hundreds, thousands of different political committees and political actors who don't really have anyone monitoring their activity in the way that the FEC would be doing if the FEC was fully functional.
CORNISH: This was set up to be nonpartisan. Is there a bipartisan will to keep it functioning?
LEVINTHAL: There really isn't at this point, and that's both internal and external. Internally, the FEC has been at loggerheads over many, many issues for many, many years. You have, on one side, conservatives who take a very laissez faire approach to campaign finance and believe that, hey, look. Speech is great for the country. And if people want to use money as speech and spend it as they see fit, they should have the right, generally speaking, to do so to a very significant degree. The Democrats out there - they feel very strongly that money plays too big a role in the way that American politics works right now and that we don't have a fair playing field in their estimation.
CORNISH: What have we heard from the FEC itself? Do they believe they're in semi-shutdown?
LEVINTHAL: The remaining commissioners, both the Republicans and the Democrats, have said - or Republican and Democrat because that's all that's left at this point - is that they're going to try to do business as much as they possibly can. The transparency function of the Federal Election Commission will remain, and that means that political candidates and political committees are going to have to file paperwork, saying how much they've raised and how much they've spent on a periodic basis. But anything that's going to be much beyond that is pretty much going to be put on ice until President Trump nominates potentially new commissioners and the Senate acts on the one commissioner who Donald Trump has previously nominated two years ago roughly. And they just simply haven't taken up his nomination at this point.
CORNISH: Dave Levinthal of the Center for Public Integrity, thanks for sharing your reporting.
LEVINTHAL: Thank you for having me.
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