Feinstein warns FEC member of rough confirmation process

Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) yesterday warned a controversial Federal Election Commission member that he faces a difficult confirmation process amid allegations that he suppressed minority votes as an official at the Department of Justice.

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During a contentious hearing yesterday, Democrats on the panel reacted strongly to a letter made public this week from six of Commissioner Hans von Spakovsky’s former colleagues opposing his nomination.

Von Spakovsky was a recess appointment to the FEC and must receive Senate confirmation by the end of the year.

Intensifying political resistance to von Spakovsky may impact the regulation of the 2008 presidential and congressional campaigns because his nomination is linked to the nominations of three other FEC members.

Joseph Rich, who served as chief of the voting section in Justice’s civil rights division between 1999 and 2005, and five other attorneys who worked with him, wrote a letter to Feinstein and Senate Rules Committee Ranking Member Bob Bennett (R-Utah) accusing Spakovsky of excessive partisanship.

“Mr. von Spakovsky played a major role in the implementation of practices which injected partisan political factors into decision-making on enforcement matters and into the hiring process, and included repeated efforts to intimidate career staff.”

Republicans on the Rules panel defended von Spakovsky throughout the hearing.

Democrats said the charges spelled trouble for von Spakovsky’s nomination in the wake of the Senate and House Judiciary committees’ investigations of allegations Justice fired U.S. attorneys because of partisan political purposes. That scandal has led to the resignation of several high-ranking Justice officials, including former Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty.

Feinstein noted yesterday that the Judiciary Committee finished hearings on the “politicization” of Justice and remarked that it is “very unusual” for a nominee to be the target of an opposition letter signed by six career attorneys from the department.

“It points out very clearly that you corrupted practices in the department,” she said. “It’s really problematic for this body to vote for someone with this letter on the record.”

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who sits with Feinstein on the Rules and Judiciary panels, also criticized von Spakovsky. He called von Spakovsky’s statement that all voters eligible to vote should be allowed to vote without trouble “totally inconsistent with the position” he took at Justice on a voter identification law in Georgia.

During von Spakovsky’s tenure, Justice approved a Georgia law that required all voters to provide voter identification. Federal district and appellate courts later struck down the statute.

If Democrats block von Spakovsky, Republicans could retaliate by derailing the nominations of Democratic commissioners Robert Lenhard and Steven Walther. The three commissioners and GOP appointee David Mason are moving through the Senate as a package.

President Bush appointed Lenhard and Walther, along with von Spakovsky, during a congressional recess at the beginning of last year. Without Senate confirmation they will stop getting paid in 2008, effectively forcing them from the commission.
“A very serious situation could develop if the Senate fails to confirm some of the commissioners before recessing sine die,” said Feinstein, in reference to the end of the congressional session.

“To perform many of its legal duties it must vote out matters with four votes,” said Feinstein, discussing the procedures of the six-member agency, which already has one vacancy because of the resignation of Michael Toner, whose term expired in April. “This would mean the FEC would lack a majority of four votes to conduct essential business.”

Bush could make several new recess appointments at the beginning of next year, but Feinstein said that would circumvent the Senate’s constitutional responsibility to provide advice and consent.

Should Feinstein, Durbin and other Democrats move to block von Spakovsky, it could create tension with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) by prompting Republican payback against Lenhard and Walther. Walther, whom Bennett called Reid’s surrogate on the FEC, handled the recount during Reid’s narrow 1998 reelection victory. Reid took part in introducing Walther at yesterday’s hearing.

But even while Feinstein recognized the urgency to confirm the nominees, she emphasized the difficulty of advancing von Spakovsky. 

“Why should we vote to confirm you with this on the record and knowing the things that happened at Justice?” Feinstein asked him, referring to the letter from former Justice officials.

Von Spakovsky disputed the accuracy of the letter and said a quick search of the webpage for Justice’s voting section would show numerous cases pursued against Republican state administrators, such as Indiana’s secretary of state. Von Spakovsky also said his former colleagues may have a political agenda.

Feinstein told von Spakovsky that he had five days to submit a point-by-point rebuttal to their allegations.
Von Spakovsky declined to answer reporters’ questions after the hearing.

Liberal-leaning groups have already called for Democrats to oppose his nomination.

“Von Spakovsky was instrumental in providing pre-clearance to a discriminatory voter ID requirement in Georgia, derailed an investigation of a biased Minnesota rule invalidating tribal ID cards at voting polls and supported [former House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay’s [R-Texas] partisan redistricting in Texas,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a vocal critic of the FEC. “All of these actions are designed to subvert the voting rights of minorities and are absolutely unacceptable credentials for an elections officer.”

White House hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) earlier this week suggested he that he was opposed to von Spakovsky’s nomination unless he could provide “legitimate explanations for his conduct.”