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When ‘draining the swamp’ means nothing to reform money in politics

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Americans are deeply dissatisfied with the state of their democracy, a fact that candidate Donald Trump used to his advantage when he ran on a promise to “drain the swamp.” And yet, the president has just nominated a member of the Federal Election Commission who opposes regulation of money in politics, including common-sense solutions like disclosure. The nominee, Trey Trainor, is an attorney based in Texas who has supported eliminating the Texas Ethics Commission, the state’s campaign finance agency. Scott Braddock, a journalist and political analyst based in Austin, recently summed up Trainor by saying that “no one has fought against transparency in Texas elections with as much energy.”

This is aside from the recent revelation that Trainor posted anti-Protestant messages on Twitter, including images showing “Protestantism is poison,” a stance that alone should disqualify him from public service. On the issue of money in politics, however, Trainor follows in the footsteps of his predecessors, including current White House counsel Don McGahn, who was a commissioner at the FEC when I started working there in 2011. When a colleague introduced me to McGahn, he swung his arms in a propeller motion to indicate the building around him and said, derisively, “Welcome to this!”

{mosads}He, along with two colleagues, appointed together in 2008, voted consistently against enforcement and against using the commission’s power to promote greater transparency. Including McGahn’s replacement, the three commissioners have voted as a bloc on enforcement matters 98 percent of the time over the last two years, often to prevent investigations. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Trainor’s first contact with the Trump campaign was being hired by McGahn. He seems to have been chosen specifically to continue the legacy of dysfunction at the FEC.

Now more than ever, the public needs leadership that will help fix our political system, not make it worse. Over the last five election cycles, there has been more than $900 million in anonymous, “dark money” campaign spending. Outside groups raising unlimited money have been increasingly brazen in their efforts coordinate their activities with candidates, undermining limits on contributions. And news continues to break about the Russian government’s efforts to sway our elections, most recently that it secretly purchased political ads on Facebook.

Meanwhile, the FEC has done very little. Despite repeated efforts by some commissioners, including several whom I worked for during my time there, three have continually refused to allow so much as public comment on proposals to enhance disclosure. They have rejected a proposal to explore greater protection against foreign money, which we now know played a role in the last election. And they have rejected proposals that would allow for disclosure of political ads online, although they recently allowed public comment on the issue, a move Commissioner Ellen Weintraub described as a “baby step in the right direction.”

Even in terms of basic functions, the FEC has increasingly been asleep at the wheel. Action typically requires the votes of four commissioners, which means that three commissioners can bring the commission to a standstill. A study by Public Citizen, a nonpartisan advocacy group, found that between 2003 and 2013 the number of these “deadlocked” votes went from less than 1 percent to more than 22 percent. Moreover, annual penalties decreased from more than $5.5 million in 2006 to less than $600,00 in 2016.

All of this is particularly tragic considering that the commission was created in the wake of Watergate to restore confidence at a time of deep public distrust. The establishment of the FEC was one of the original recommendations of the Watergate committee, a response to revelations about illegal corporate contributions and large White House slush funds, in hopes to reestablish faith in the system.

Over time, the FEC has gradually fallen into deep disrepair, and with it, public disclosure and other policies that enjoy overwhelming public support. Even leaders in Washington have long supported disclosure on a bipartisan basis. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a longtime foe of campaign finance regulation, once asked, “Why would a little disclosure be better than a lot of disclosure?” Even during his campaign, Trump said, “I want transparency. I don’t mind the money coming in. Let it be transparent. Let them talk, but let there be total transparency.”

The nomination of Trainor suggests that this position, along with candidate Trump’s view that super political action committees are “a horrible thing,” did not survive inauguration. If Trainor is confirmed to the commission, he will almost certainly continue to advocate for weaker enforcement and less disclosure, a step backwards at a time when we’re gravely in need of progress.

Alex Tausanovitch is associate director of democracy and government reform at the Center for American Progress. He served as counsel to members of the Federal Election Commission from 2011 to 2015.

Tags campaign Donald McGahn Donald Trump Donald Trump Federal Election Commission Finance Mitch McConnell Politics White House

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