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FEC Could Face Massive Turnover at the Top

A Republican appointee to the Federal Election Commission announced this week that he will leave his post in mid-August, creating the possibility that as many as four new commissioners could be named before summer’s end.

Bradley Smith, who has served on the FEC since 2000, sent a letter to President Bush on Tuesday indicating he would leave his post Aug. 21 and return to teaching law at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio.

In an interview, Smith said that having served out his term at the election watchdog agency, he was looking forward to returning to academia.

“On the whole I feel that I have accomplished all I could accomplish in the time I had,” he said. “I can’t take most of the credit for this, but by virtually any objective standard the agency is run better than it was in the ’90s.”

He said he is most proud of fostering what he believes to be a greater awareness within the agency of the sometimes onerous impact campaign finance regulations have on less sophisticated players in the political process.

That approach has persistently irritated lawmakers and public interest groups in the so-called reform community, however.

And his departure deals a wild card into the poker game of appointing commissioners to the relatively obscure but greatly influential agency.

Four of the six commissioners, including Smith, continue to serve despite the fact that their terms have technically expired. They are allowed to remain on the commission until replacements are named. Smith’s term, along with that of Democratic appointee Danny McDonald, was up in April. The terms of current Chairman Scott Thomas, a Democratic appointee, as well as Republican appointee David Mason, expired in 2003.

For a number of reasons, appointing replacements is often dicey. For one, the partisan appointments are usually moved in pairs, meaning quite a few people across party lines have to agree on how to proceed or, more likely, disagree equally with the other camps’ choices — thereby achieving “balance.” That’s an exceptionally difficult prospect, particularly in the current political climate.

Two years ago, then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) put forth their candidate to replace Thomas. They asked Bush to replace him with Democratic labor lawyer Robert Lenhard, the associate general counsel for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Reform groups cried foul. Thomas has been reform groups’ most reliable vote, while Lenhard had signed the legal brief before the Supreme Court seeking to overturn parts of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. Republicans never put a name forth to replace Mason, and no action was taken on the appointments.

Mason and Thomas are the only two who could in theory be reappointed, as they were grandfathered in when the law was changed in the mid-1990s to limit FEC commissioners to only one term. But campaign finance observers were not even venturing a guess Wednesday as to the prospects of that or any other appointments this summer.

Smith’s departure almost certainly forces Congressional leaders’ and Bush’s hands, however, as a five-member commission down one Republican is not what GOP operatives want going into the 2006 election cycle. Spokesmen for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) did not return calls by press time.

For their part, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate are in a somewhat precarious situation as well, because they must decide how their potential picks fit into larger strategic and ideological positions.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and groups supporting his 2002 law and efforts to rein in 527 groups hope to change the paradigm entirely.

“We’re recommending strongly that the president start looking at appointees who are nonpolitical,” McCain said Wednesday.

Rather than committed partisans, reform groups such as Democracy 21 and the Center for Responsive Politics would rather see retired judges or others from outside the political process appointed instead of campaign operatives, as is often the case.

“With four open seats on the six-member commission, the President now has the opportunity to show he is committed to an agency that stands up for the interests of the public and not just the narrow goals of the politicians and groups it regulates,” CRP President Larry Noble said in a statement.

Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer agreed, and both would like to see Thomas reappointed. “The president ought to find three new commissioners and ought to look outside the normal political channels that are used to pick commissioners,” Wertheimer said.

Lawmakers and independent groups who would like to see less regulation of the campaign finance system said such qualifications are really a euphemism for appointments that the reformers believe will uphold their views.

Wertheimer said he simply wants commissioners who will enforce the law as it’s currently written.

Asked whether he believed Bush will be receptive to the idea of “nonpartisan” appointments, McCain said flatly: “I don’t know.”

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