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Stepping Into the FEC Firestorm

Ellen Weintraub is a rare commodity in Washington these days.

Newly installed on the Federal Election Commission and suddenly chairing the six-member agency for 2003, Weintraub’s one of the only Democrats in town actually wielding a gavel anymore.

“It’s very exciting. Obviously I’m very enthusiastic about coming into it,” Weintraub said last week during an interview in her new office on the ninth floor of 999 E St. NW.

The task she describes as both “intriguing” and “interesting” is also a welcome change of pace for the accomplished lawyer, who spent years toiling behind the scenes both on the House ethics committee and more recently advising clients as a member of Perkins Coie’s Political Law Group.

“As a lawyer, you are generally in a subsidiary role,” explained Weintraub, a Democratic appointee who received a recess appointment to her new job from President Bush in December. She is currently the only woman and the first Jew to serve on the commission. “Here I get to be the decision-maker.”

While the rotating chairmanship changes hands annually — it is routinely swapped between a Republican and Democrat — Weintraub’s six-year term as a commissioner runs through April 30, 2007. She replaced Commissioner Karl Sandstrom, a Democrat who was lambasted by the reform community for voting on numerous occasions with GOP commissioners during the recent rulemaking process on landmark campaign reform legislation.

Even with Sandstrom’s exit, controversy is never far from the battered watchdog agency.

Weintraub’s grand entrance into the arena comes at pivotal time for the agency, which is under fire from critics in Congress and grappling with the aftermath of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is so fed up with the agency — largely because he feels that four commissioners, including Sandstrom, penned regulations late last year that don’t truly reflect the law he wrote — that he’s threatened to work to dismantle it.

Aides and others close to McCain said the Senator will introduce legislation later this month with his plan for overhauling the FEC, coupling the FEC reform package with an overhaul of the presidential funding system.

Then there’s the whole looming question of what the courts plan to do with the so-called McCain-Feingold act, its ban on soft money and its restrictions on issue advocacy.

While a U.S. District Court panel is expected to render its opinion on the issues in late February, all eyes are on the Supreme Court, which will ultimately decide the new law’s fate.

If the high court decides to toss out or alter large portions of the new McCain-Feingold law, Weintraub and her colleagues will once again face the rigorous and potentially controversial task of implementing those changes.

“Everything that we do this year is in the shadow of the litigation,” Weintraub said, acknowledging the uncertainty that faces both the regulated community and regulators like herself.

“People in the regulated community are uncertain as to what the shape of the law is going to be by the end of the year,” continued Weintraub, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Yale University and her law degree from Harvard University. “And I think we have to be ready … to adjust to that, ready to respond to that.”

Still, she hopes that the law so many years in the making will largely be preserved.

“I’m hoping we’re going to try to get a chance to implement this law,” she acknowledged.

No doubt Weintraub’s husband, Bill Dauster, who works as a top aide to Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), would also be deflated by such an outcome.

It was his boss, after all, who co-authored much of the new law with McCain.

Still, the female half of this Washington power couple with three children is clear about one thing — she’s not about to turn her new position into a pro-reform bully pulpit.

“I did not come in with specific policy objectives — ‘I really want to get that regulation passed or this regulation passed,’” explained Weintraub, a native New Yorker-turned-Washingtonian. “I want to look at the way the agency does business.”

FEC observers are neither heralding nor knocking her appointment, but are instead taking the wait-and-see approach as Weintraub settles in.

A shrewd lawyer who is well-respected by her peers, Weintraub nonetheless is a bit of a blank slate when it comes to campaign finance issues, having neither much of a written nor a verbal record by which she can be judged.

What Weintraub will say is that she is interested in making sure the FEC is as effective as possible in terms of enforcement and compliance, noting that “the best way of doing it 20 years ago maybe is not the best way of doing it now.”

In an ideal world, Weintraub surmised, the FEC would explain the regulations perfectly, the regulated community would follow them perfectly and compliance would be 100 percent — but she knows the reality of the system.

“I’ve always been a compliance person, and that’s where I really believe the agency ought to be putting its resources,” Weintraub explained.

Even as she puts on her bureaucratic hat, Weintraub stressed that she understands the perspective of the regulated community and said she would strive for balance and fairness in the job.

“I’ve worked with the reform community and I’ve worked with the regulated community, and I’ve heard a lot of concerns voiced on both sides,” she said. “I’m going to try and keep that perspective while I am here. I always try to deal with the people fairly.”

Added Weintraub: “The regulated community may not like us, but I hope they will feel that they are treated fairly.”

Her sense of fairness seems to have been particularly shaped by Weintraub’s previous life on Capitol Hill.

“I have an unusual background. I worked on a committee evenly divided by Republicans and Democrats implementing reform legislation,” she said, referring to her six-year stint on the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. “That’s not a bad background coming into this job at this particular juncture in time.”

As a counsel to House ethics in the early 1990s, Weintraub was one of the invisible hands tasked with implementing the Ethics Reform Act of 1989 and making the resulting changes to the House Code of Official Conduct.

She also served as editor in chief of the House Ethics Manual and was a principal contributor to the Senate Ethics Manual. In addition, she had the responsibility of counseling Members on investigations as well as heading up the committee’s public education and compliance initiatives.

In 1997, she served on the legal team that advised the Senate Rules and Administration Committee as it dealt with the fallout from Sen. Mary Landrieu’s (D-La.) contested election contest in 1996.

Weintraub, it seems, has a knack for landing jobs at some of the busiest and most tumultuous times in history for her employers.

“I’ve been told, and I don’t know if it’s true, that this agency accounted for more pages in the Federal Register last year than any other agency, and this is a pretty small agency,” she said with a smile.

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