Will Donald Trump Ignore Tradition To Reform the Federal Election Commission?

The chairman of the Federal Election Commission, Ann Ravel, has resigned. If the name isn’t familiar to you, it should be. She is the FEC member who has been pushing to give the FEC the authority to regulate political speech on the internet.


A Democrat on the Federal Election Commission is quitting her term early because of the gridlock that has gripped the panel, offering President Trump an unexpected chance to shape political spending rules.

The commissioner, Ann M. Ravel, said during an interview that she would send Mr. Trump her letter of resignation this week. She pointed to a series of deadlocked votes between the panel’s three Democrats and three Republicans that she said left her little hope the group would ever be able to rein in campaign finance abuses.

“The ability of the commission to perform its role has deteriorated significantly,” said Ms. Ravel, who has sparred bitterly with the Republican election commissioners during her three years on the panel. She added, “I think I can be more effective on the outside.”

One of the plagues infesting our system of government is the battalion of independent boards and commissions which have the ability to write regulations and inflict fines while operating outside our Constitutional balance of powers. None of these commissions are either benign or necessary. The functions could easily be carried out by the executive branch with oversight from the legislative.

The brake built into the system is that, by law, no more than three members can be from the same political party and four votes, not just a majority of the commission, are needed to make any binding decision. By tradition, Senate Democrats will be given the opportunity to pick Ravel’s successor.


Trump has a couple of paths open to him. The first, the easiest, is to let Chuck Schumer nominate a replacement.

The second route Trump could take is to nominate someone who is neither Democrat nor Republican.

Mr. Trump can pick a nominee himself so long as he does not choose a registered Republican, said Richard L. Hasen, an election law scholar at the University of California, Irvine. The panel, which already has three Republicans, cannot have more than three members from any political party. Mr. Hasen said he would not be surprised if Mr. Trump made the pick himself, especially because his White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, was an election commissioner himself and has pushed fiercely for deregulating campaign finance.

“It would be transformative,” Mr. Hasen said, if the president nominated someone more aligned with the panel’s Republican members to push for even further deregulation.

Just imagine how different the FEC would be if Cato Institute was asked to recommend the nominee.

Trump is also in the position of being able to appoint 100% of the FEC members. All five remaining members have served beyond their original appointments and can be replaced as soon as another nominee is confirmed. If he wanted to play hardball he could run with three GOP commissioners and three independents.


My preferred route would be for Trump to use the leverage of appointing a non-Democrat to undertake radical reform of the FEC. At a minimum he could return the appointment authority to where it belongs under the Constitution, to the president. If he went that route, it might also convince Congress to strip the FEC of its rule-making and enforcement authority and convert it into a kind of court/arbitration panel that makes recommendations but is reliant upon the Justice Department for review, approval and enforcement of those decisions. Or it might convince Congress to eliminate the FEC altogether and give campaign finance enforcement to Justice, where it belongs.


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