RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Today's the last business day that the Federal Election Commission will be able to carry out its business. FEC vice chairman Matthew Petersen announced his resignation earlier this week, which takes effect at the end of this month. With Petersen gone, the FEC will be down to three members, so it won't have a quorum, so it can't do its work.
NPR's Brian Naylor reports the timing couldn't be worse, as the 2020 election draws closer.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The Federal Election Commission's job is to oversee federal campaign spending. It can issue fines and give guidance to campaigns about following election law, but it can do none of those things without a working quorum.
DANIEL WEINER: To not have the FEC able to take action right now is deeply concerning.
NAYLOR: That's Dan Weiner, a former senior counsel at the FEC. It's concerning, he says, because of what we learned in the last presidential election about Russian interference.
WEINER: After 2016, it's become very clear that it is almost certain that the Russian government and, potentially, other U.S. rivals will seek to interfere in the U.S. election, including through online propaganda, cybersecurity incursions and other tactics that the FEC would be one of the frontline agencies to help combat.
NAYLOR: Weiner, now with NYU's Brennan Center, says the FEC was in the midst of strengthening disclosure and transparency requirements for online political ads of the sort that Russian operatives used to manipulate voters in 2016.
WEINER: These were issues that the FEC could have potentially - you know, was preparing to deal with. And the lack of a quorum will make that impossible until that seat is filled. So I do think there is a real impact.
NAYLOR: But the lack of a quorum doesn't mean the FEC will completely go dark, says former FEC chairman Michael Toner. Other business will be conducted.
MICHAEL TONER: Public disclosure reports will continue to be due and will need to be filed by campaigns and PACs and committees, and those reports will be reviewed by the FEC staff just as they always are. So that's important. Second of all, the FEC website will continue to operate where people can go and get information on campaign fundraising and spending.
NAYLOR: And Toner says just because the FEC will now lack a quorum doesn't mean it will be a legal-free zone, as he puts it.
TONER: There's a five-year statute of limitations on campaign finance violations. FEC complaints can still be filed with the agency. At some point, presumably, the agency will regain a quorum and will be able to take action on enforcement cases. So, you know, campaigns and committees still have to follow the law.
NAYLOR: But Meredith McGehee isn't so sure they will. She is director of Issue One, a campaign reform group.
MEREDITH MCGEHEE: It's kind of like saying there's a law against robbing banks. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the population would still not rob a bank if there wasn't a policeman. But, you know, there's always that element there that's going to be looking for an opportunity to get away with it. And I think what's really different about politics is that there's both so much gray area and there is political disagreement about the laws anyway.
NAYLOR: The FEC is not the only government entity unable to act because of a lack of a quorum. The Merit Systems Protection Board, which investigates allegations of violations of federal personnel practices, including the Hatch Act, hasn't had one for over two years. It's not clear how long the FEC will be hampered by its lack of a quorum.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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