Walther Takes On Washington

Hearings Begin Today on State of FEC

Posted January 13, 2009 at 6:06pm

The Federal Election Commission today will begin two days of hearings designed to catalog criticisms of the much-maligned agency. The marathon bloodletting also will be a coming-out party for Steven Walther, the agency’s new chairman — and, heretofore, its George Harrison.

In a recent interview with Roll Call, the soft-spoken Nevadan reiterated his commitment to the agency’s mission, while suggesting that today’s hearings will likely serve as a jumping-off point for policymakers looking to overhaul the agency.

“It’s really the broadest look at our enforcement system we’ve had since the agency started,” Walther said. “It will take a significant amount of work following the hearing to assimilate our comments and hopefully make some positive steps.”

The FEC has long been Washington, D.C.’s underdog agency, a creature of Congress with six commissioners, no more than three of whom can be from the same party.

That parity has led to persistent criticism that the agency is toothless, more beholden to Members and the election law community than ordinary citizens.

Walther has been an FEC commissioner for roughly three years, but little is known about the new chairman, even in the relatively close-knit campaign finance community.

Unlike his five fellow commissioners, Walther does not call himself a Republican or Democrat, a testament, perhaps, to his status as an outsider — both in Washington and in the heavily partisan campaign finance community.

A decade ago, Walther was a Reno-based lawyer who helped now-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) edge out a victory of just a few hundred votes over now-Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.). According to published reports, Reid rewarded Walther by backing him publicly to run for the U.S. Court of Appeals.

But the fourth-generation Nevadan, who until recently never lived more than 30 miles from where his great-grandfather first planted his stakes, passed at the chance, telling the Associated Press that “I have decided to realize my public service goals through other avenues … my wife and I discussed this at length and decided upon reflection to find a better balance.”

Walther downplays his relationship with Reid, joking that Nevada is “a small enough state that you know most everyone on a first-name basis.”

Still, Reid waxed generously about Walther on the Senate floor last summer during the since-resolved FEC nominations stalemate that shuttered the agency for six months.

“I cannot say enough nice things about Steven Walther,” Reid said on the Senate floor on June 24. “ I want everyone within the sound of my voice to understand what a man of integrity he is.”

Walther’s “other avenues” apparently were realized in July 2005, when he was recommended by Reid for an open slot on the FEC.

Surrounded by a team of in-house lawyers and outside advocates steeped in the intricacies of election law, Walther established himself as the FEC’s silent workhorse, trolling diligently alongside often-quoted colleagues like former GOP-nominated Commissioner Michael Toner and Democrat Bob Lenhard, who is now reviewing the agency for President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team.

Former FEC Chairman Bradley Smith, a Republican, described Walther as a “quiet, effective player” who avoids the limelight, but whose résumé, devoid of almost any election law expertise, may become “something of an issue when you get into the nitty-gritty details.

“He tends to keep a low profile and is very interested in making the commission function efficiently, making compromises and moving along the bread-and-butter, meat-and-potato cases … without letting them become too controversial,” Smith said.

And despite Walther’s three years on the job, another campaign finance lawyer also questioned whether he was immediately up to the task, particularly in terms of understanding the chaotic nature of political campaigns.

“People in the regulated community want people who understand their issues, who understand what people go through and how the system works,” the lawyer said.

“Throwing someone in there who doesn’t particularly understand it creates a learning curve and, sometimes, a frustrating challenge for the regulated community,” the lawyer added.

Walther tries to assuage such concerns by noting that while he has never been part of the local election law fraternity, he has done his time in the political trenches.

“I see where people say we sound toothless, but to me the idea is to be transparent, efficient and fair — those are three adjectives that are our lodestone in terms of the hearing coming up,” he told Roll Call.

He also suggested that an outsider’s perspective may be sorely needed at the agency, which starting next week faces an uncertain future under the Obama administration.

“I’d never been before the Federal Election Commission, but I had assisted in elections for a number of years,” he said.

Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign finance watchdog Democracy 21, would not comment on Walther directly, just saying that “the FEC has once again become dysfunctional.”

“I don’t know if the fundamental problems with this commission can be solved in the present circumstances in which the agency is functioning,” Wertheimer said. “We believe that a fundamental overhaul of the commission is essential.”

In a memo available on Obama’s transition Web site, change.gov, Wertheimer asked the incoming president to rework how commissioners are nominated, arguing that too often over the years, commissioners have been named “whose first loyalty appears to run to the congressional leaders and political parties that choose them and whom they are responsible for regulating. … The appointment process must be ended.”

Walther declined to discuss the possibility of sweeping overhauls at the FEC, which handles civil violations, but he said this week’s hearings may present the best opportunity to date to determine “how we can get the job done better.”

More efficient internal communication and better coordination with the Justice Department, which prosecutes criminal election law violations, are two areas in particular that could be explored, Walther said.

“We could benefit by periodic meetings … not necessarily on specific cases but on ways in which we could cooperate in a smooth, regular way,” Walther said of his agency’s relationship with the Justice Department. “It has not been a priority on either end to sit down on a periodic basis.”

As of Tuesday, the FEC had received 25 recommendations on how to fix the agency, including a memo from Craig Donsanto, the top election crimes cop at the Justice Department.

Expected to testify at the two-day hearings are former agency commissioners David Mason, a Republican; Scott Thomas, a Democrat; and Hans von Spakovsky, the GOP- nominated commissioner at the center of last year’s agency stalemate.

Walther also speculated that the now- defunct presidential public financing system may be the key policy issue for reform- minded lawmakers in 2009, setting up a possible row with Obama, a one-time supporter who opted out of the system last year.

“We now see that through the use of the Internet and improved communications, contributions were much greater than people anticipated a few years ago,” Walther said. “What’s going to happen in the future? I’m not the best person to predict.”