Noting that we are at an “all hands on deck” moment for our democracy, FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub circulated to the Commission yesterday a document citing former Vice President Dick Cheney for the proposition that the United States is now at war with Russia, and that “[e]very part of our government that has jurisdiction over [reported Russian attempts to affect the 2016 presidential election] must exercise every scrap of its jurisdiction as fully as it can.”  She calls on the FEC to “find out the facts of what happened during the 2016 Presidential election, and move firmly and swiftly to fix any problems we might find.”  As with any declaration of war, this one comes with a Churchillian reference to the FEC’s “finest hour,” and an insistence that this struggle must not be a partisan one, citing Senator Mitch McConnell for the proposition that we need strong action against Russia.

Despite what some may feel is overheated rhetoric, Commissioner Weintraub presents some quite sensible proposals about what the agency might do to ensure the integrity of our electoral system.  While her list also includes proposals that some commissioners are certain to view as unsupported by the current factual record, it would be better if the commissioners were able to focus on the points where they agreed, rather than disagreed.

Specifically, Commissioner Weintraub outlines six actions she will ask her fellow commissioners to support, including:

  • Having the Justice Department, Treasury and similar agencies brief the FEC to get it up to speed on the problem;
  • Ensure the FEC’s enforcement teams are fully staffed and form interagency task forces if the problem proves too big;
  • Assure the public that the FEC’s data is safe;
  • Begin a rulemaking to adopt a test that will treat more corporations as foreign nationals, barred from participating in American politics;
  • Hold hearings on whether more rulemakings might be necessary; and
  • Give Congress guidance on which pending legislation it should pass and if new bills are needed.

If the Republicans on the FEC can look beyond the overheated rhetoric, and identify reasonable steps the agency could take, progress could be made.  There is no doubt the FEC should ensure its legal team is adequately staffed, and if particular expertise is lacking, seek it out in other agencies.  If the Russians made efforts to hack the FEC’s computer system, an assurance as to the quality of the agency’s defenses would be welcome.  And if the FEC had a more reliable source of information on the threat we face than the public reports in Time and The Intercept, that would be a good thing.

But there are certainly proposals that will not meet with majority support, and with that comes a significant risk that Thursday’s meeting is a repeat of past performances at the FEC, where one side accuses the other of being indifferent to the imminent threat of lawlessness, and the other accuses its opponents of stripping citizens of their liberties.  It would be unfortunate, for the issue at hand is a significant one, and both sides have something meaningful to say about how to make improvements to the agency’s handling of it.