The FEC got back into the news when Commissioner Weintraub issued a statement, posted to the FEC website and distributed via Twitter, that President Trump should produce some evidence to support his claim of voter fraud. An organization that calls itself Cause of Action filed a complaint with the FEC Inspector General, demanding an inquiry into whether the Commissioner’s expression of her views involved an impermissible diversion of government resources to a private political pursuit. Commissioner Weintraub replied that she would “not be silenced.”
One can only hope that in this demoralized agency, the IG finds better things to do. Just weeks ago, the President of the United States used Twitter to visit hell on a department store chain that discontinued his daughter's line of clothing. An FEC Commissioner’s use of a statement and a few hundred characters of twitter commentary to criticize the President’s voter fraud claims hardly seems the most compelling reason for concern about holding some line between the official and the personal.
Are Weintraub’s comments directly and squarely within the jurisdiction of the Commission, such that she can take some action in response to the President's failure to produce the requested evidence? No, but then again she rightly says that as a 13 year Commissioner, she should be free to take notice of any claims that bear on the integrity of elections. And she has tried, probably unnecessarily, to bolster her case by pointing out that anyone paying for busloads to come into New Hampshire to vote illegally may have committed a campaign finance violation.
FEC Commissioner Ravel came to town with every intention to make change and left in a state of disillusionment. She aspired to build fences and ran into a wall: The Republicans had no interest in cooperating in a progressive reform program, not even bringing “dark money” into the light. The Commissioner then took her case public, before the sympathetic audiences in the media, but this was a dead end. Republican Commissioners are not moved by op-eds in the New York Times. By the time of her resignation yesterday, Commissioner Ravel had made her name by stressing the pointlessness of expecting anything from her agency. She may have made little headway in advancing the cause of transparency in campaign finance, but she was very clear about her own views.
Her letter of resignation is a parting expression of her commitment to strengthened enforcement of campaign finance laws. It is also a last testament to the futility of her quest. She refers to various statements the President has made about the broken campaign finance system and urges him to prioritize reform among his domestic initiatives. Of course, Mitch McConnell runs the Senate and there is no chance of his agreement to the program she advocates of ending “dark money,” reversing Citizens United, public finance and a reinvigorated FEC.
The president to which she made this last appeal may or may not have meant what he said about campaign finance. He was a billionaire candidate who could spend freely: his “money in politics” was not restricted. But he did not win by swamping his foes with superior resources. Candidates with plenty of campaign money, like Jeb Bush, failed early. On the subject of election law, this president seems far more motivated by his belief in “voter fraud.”
There seems to be a question of whether the media should provide platforms for Administration spokespersons who regularly use the airtime to disseminate falsehoods. “Truth matters,” Margaret Sullivan writes, and she worries that viewers will come away misled, as some might have last Sunday after Stephen Miller’s appearance in which he repeated the charge of “serious” voter fraud. But Sullivan misses the point that the Administration should be given every opportunity to say what it will on this subject (and others). We might regret that some in the audience, predisposed to believe these claims, may mistake them for facts. But Miller, following Trump, is helping, by speaking, to clarify the nature of this initiative, and it is important that it be understood.
One consequence of clear understanding will be the disinclination of true experts to participate in this process. Few with credibility will be anxious to sign up to validate the work of a Commission launched to validate a conclusion already reached. And, as Miller made clear, this conclusion rests on what “everyone”--at least everyone in New Hampshire--knows. It is hard to imagine who will take this “everyone knows” school of election administration seriously and risk their reputations by enrolling in it.
In the normal case, when a Commission-in-the-making is virtually founded on the rejection of expertise, its bid for respectability would be a long shot. But when its political purpose is plain, because it is the creation of candidates pursuing their own self-interest, it has no hope. The President’s staunchest political allies might stay with him on this, and he can count on groups that thrive on allegations of fraud. In the wider world of administrators and experts, both Democratic and Republican, the prospects of having to engage with this Commission will inspire dread.
This leaves members of this community with a couple of choices.
The Senate’s invocation of Rule 19 against Senator Warren could not have been more curiously timed. Supposedly concerned to uphold senatorial debate standards, to keep out the nasty stuff, Senate Republicans disqualified Warren from further debate on the Sessions nomination because she read from Coretta Scott King’s 1986 statement opposing Mr. Sessions’ elevation to the bench. Meanwhile, the President routinely tweets out abuse of political adversaries, in the courts or (as in the case of John McCain) in the Congress.
Of course, the President is not bound by the Congressional rules and traditions. But that is the interesting question: if there are standards to be applied to democratic debate, especially to the remarks of senior elected officials, why should those standards be limited to legislative speech? And, if extended to executive branch speech, how?
It might be thought that standards of this kind are significant only in the management of a deliberative body: their function could simply be to avert fist fights on “the floor,” where debate takes place, or, short of violence, to keep order. There is more to them than just this functional administrative purpose. When the Senate censured Joe McCarthy in 1954, the politics were complex, but the Resolution noted his verbal abuse of adversaries. It cited his accusations that the Senate was convening a “lynch-party” against him, that a senior Member directing the Select Committee censure inquiry was “cowardly,” and that the Committee was acting as “attorneys-in-fact” for the Communist Party. The Senate applied the severe penalty of censure in part because McCarthy’s vicious speech violated “senatorial ethics” and "tended to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute."
This goal of protecting against institutional disrepute has been reflected for years in the ethics codes of both the House and the Senate. See, e.g. S. Res. 338, 88th Cong., 2d. Sess. (1964]; House Rule XXIII Cl. 1 (“A Member, Delegate, Resident Commissioner, officer, or employee of the House shall behave at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House.”) Members engaged in abusive and irresponsible speech are not only disregarding some housekeeping regulation, like a prohibition against bringing their dinners into the chambers: They are presumptively acting in violation of their personal ethical obligations. There is no reason why reckless, vituperative speech by executive branch officials would not bring dishonor and discredit to that branch of the Government.
President Trump’s arrangement for an inquiry into election voting fraud is fatally compromised by political self-interest. Before the November election, he insisted that voter fraud might cost him the victory. After he had won, he decided that it robbed him of success in the popular vote. He put the number of illegal voters at 3 to 5 million, all of it allegedly committed at his expense.
And having taken this position, he is not only looking back. He is already a candidate for reelection, and this project would serve his purpose of reducing the risk of another popular vote disappointment. So he will establish a presidential commission to look into voting fraud, and he intends to appoint as its chair his Vice President, who was his presidential running mate in the last election and will very probably be on the ticket again 2020.
This process has lacked credibility from the start, and if it were only a matter of appreciating the nature and limitations of this political project, then not much more attention would need to be paid to it. But in what happens next, once this Pence Commission is formed and launched, the long-term cost to bipartisanship in voting reform could prove high.There has been to this point room for bipartisan cooperation on election reform, and it has been productive. This is not to say that the political parties don’t fight over these issues, and sue each other, or that self-interest and outright chicanery is not evident in legislation, regulation, administrative interpretation and positions taken in litigation. But there has been over the same time that the “voting wars” have broken out, Democrats, Republicans, and others have done what they could to figure out where, in the interests of voters, the partisan brawling could give way to measured, professionally disciplined discussion of real problems and feasible reforms to improve the voting experience for all citizens.
This cooperation has occurred in support of special studies like the one undertaken by the Presidential Commission on Election Reform. It continues through other programs, such as those sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center. BPC in fact recruited to this work a former Commission member, a Democrat, and a former Republican Secretary of State, a Republican, who were paired in the leadership of this work. The Commission, the BPC and other similar initiatives have counted on, received and benefitted enormously from engagement on a bipartisan basis with the National Association of Secretaries of State, the National Association of Election Directors and other election administration professionals. These relationships provide access to reliable information and to the best judgment of experienced officials and experts. The keys are bipartisanship and professionalism.
- Church Speech
- The Supreme Court Confirmation Argument, and Limits
- A Question of Norms: DOJ Independence in a “New Political Order”
- President Trump’s Voter Fraud “Investigation”
- The CREW “Emoluments” Suit and the Congress
- The New Free Speech Anxieties
- The Trump Conflict-Of-Interest Plan, On its Own Terms
- When Lawyers (Surprise!) Disagree: Sorting out the Nepotism Issue
- The Law-or-Ethics Question for Congressional Ethics
- The Quandaries of Ethics Reform in the Trump Era