MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Did Russia try to influence the last presidential election by secretly funneling money to shadow groups? Will they try again? Will others? Could this be happening now? Those are some of the questions that have preoccupied many citizens since the extent of Russia's efforts to manipulate public opinion became known. But those questions may not be answered because the work of the nation's campaign finance watchdog, the Federal Election Commission, is now on hold.
That's because earlier this week, FEC Vice Chairman Matthew Petersen announced his resignation effective today, and that means the FEC is down to three commissioners - one short of the four needed for a quorum that allows the commission to legally meet and take action. Ellen Weintraub chairs the Federal Election Commission, and she's with us now from our New York bureau to tell us more about how this happened and why it matters.
Madam Chair Weintraub, thank you so much for talking with us.
ELLEN WEINTRAUB: Thank you for inviting me, Michel.
MARTIN: So just to sort of walk us through this, the FEC is supposed to have six commissioners, no more than three from the same party. But this resignation leaves you with only three. You are a Democrat plus one Republican plus one independent. Do I have that right?
WEINTRAUB: You have that exactly right.
MARTIN: It has been estimated that the spending on this upcoming election could be as high as $10 billion. So how will this lack of a quorum - for the sake of argument that this persists - like, what oversight will there be of this?
WEINTRAUB: Well, people will continue to file their campaign finance reports. At least, I hope they will. And our staff is available to help them do that and to take that information and post it on the web so that everyone will have access to the information. But if people are not doing what they should do - are not voluntarily complying with the law, and there are complaints filed, we will not be able to process them.
MARTIN: So for people who - you know, who have a hard time sort of focusing on this - and, you know, people are busy with their lives, and they're just trying to, you know, get through the day. How should they think about this? Like, can you just explain for people just why this matters so much?
WEINTRAUB: Well, I think people should be outraged about this - that the president and the Senate have left the agency in this precarious position for so long and that we now find ourselves without a quorum at all. I think it's completely unacceptable. This agency was set up after Watergate to follow the money - to make sure that the American public has the important information they need to make informed decisions about who to vote for and who's supporting those candidates. Who do they owe debts to when they come into office? What positions are they likely to be pursuing to protect the interests of their donors?
Money in politics is the beginning of every policy decision that gets made in Washington, and it is just vitally important that there is an agency that is fully functional and able to make sure that money that is being received is being done so legally, that it's not coming from illegal sources - certainly not from foreign sources - and that if people are violating the laws that there will be a consequence. And we cannot do that right now.
MARTIN: And before we let you go, as I mentioned, that the party in power nominates to the commission. It's my understanding that they generally seek recommendations from the opposition party. So President Trump - the custom has been that if the Republicans control the White House, they would seek recommendations from the Democratic side for the Democratic members. Have any of the Democrats taken this on? I mean, it seems fair to ask if the - have the Democrats made an issue of this?
WEINTRAUB: That is a question for people other than me. But I would urge all of those who have a role in filling these commission seats to do so quickly and to look for people who will be productive partners in getting the work of the agency done. We've got another whole problem at the FEC functionality even when we do have a quorum, and that is that over the last 11 years, it's been very difficult to make compromises, to find common ground and to issue rules or advisory opinions or come to conclusion on enforcement matters in a productive manner. We recently closed an enforcement matter without investigating even though there were terribly serious allegations of Russian money being funneled into our elections, and I could not get four votes to investigate those allegations.
So yes, it is very important that we get a bare minimum of four at least and hopefully six commissioners on board to do our important job. But it also would be really nice to get commissioners who are prepared to do their job and do it right.
MARTIN: That's Ellen Weintraub. She chairs the Federal Election Commission.
Madam Chair, thank you so much for speaking with us.
WEINTRAUB: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.