The Senate began its process of confirming a new member to the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday, an effort to restore the agency’s ability to conduct official business as the primary elections take place in full force.
The Senate Rules Committee’s rare public hearing of a nominee for the FEC, James E. “Trey” Trainor III, served as the first step to confirm the conservative Texas lawyer, whose nomination had languished for the past three years.
Since August 2019, the FEC lost its ability to do its official job after the resignation of a commissioner left it unable to operate for the first time in 11 years without its necessary four-person quorum.
Trainor has been nominated three times to the position since 2017, but he remained in limbo amid controversy over his social media postings and a standstill among Senate leaders on the logistics of appointing commissioners.
It remains unclear whether Trainor will be confirmed to the post. The Rules Committee has not yet scheduled its vote to move his nomination to the full Senate. On Thursday, the two party leaders in the Senate remained split on Trainor’s nomination.
Trainor, an Austin-based elections lawyer, has pushed for less regulation of money in politics and fought efforts to require politically active nonprofit organizations to disclose their donors. Sen. Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) attended the hearing to raise concerns about Trainor’s past comments on limiting donor disclosure. Government transparency groups widely oppose his confirmation.
Senators asked Trainor his role in redistricting and gerrymandering cases in Texas and his views on the enforcement role of the FEC.
When asked about Russian interference in the 2016 elections, Trainor did not mention Russia but acknowledged that “there has been foreign interference in our elections, and I believe there is still the potential for our elections to be targeted by foreign entities.”
Democratic senators asked whether he would recuse himself in cases involving President Trump, given his previous role advising the Republican National Committee and Trump during the 2016 elections.
Trainor said he would not apply a “blanket recusal” but that he would consult the FEC’s ethics advisers to recuse from certain cases if necessary, noting that that is a standard process for commissioners.
Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has called on a full slate of six new commissioners to the FEC to replace all commissioners, said he supported restoring the quorum, reestablishing party balance among commissioners, and bringing the agency one step closer to having six new commissioners.
The three commissioners are Republican Caroline Hunter, whose term expired in 2013; Democrat Ellen Weintraub, whose term expired in 2008; and Steven Walther, an independent who often caucuses with the Democrats, whose term expired in 2009. Under federal law, no more than three FEC commissioners can be from the same party, and the panel has typically been divided equally along party lines.
McConnell said he wishes to see “a clean slate of commissioners, all serving on real, unexpired terms, to bring new energy, build new relationships and inject some new perspective.”
Senate Democrats had pushed for restoring the quorum, and for upholding an unwritten tradition of appointing a pair of commissioners — one from each party — at a time. Senate Democrats said they vetted and recommended Shana Broussard, an FEC attorney, to the panel. But there has not yet been a formal nomination sent to the Senate Rules Committee.
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