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Obama FEC Choice Draws Mixed Reviews

By Dan Eggen
President Obama's first nomination to the Federal Election Commission has prompted a divided reaction from campaign finance reformers, many of whom are disappointed that the new Democratic president has not pushed for more dramatic reform of the troubled panel.

The White House announced late Friday that it was nominating longtime labor lawyer John J. Sullivan to the six-member commission, where work has nearly ground to a halt in recent months because of numerous split decisions along party lines. Sullivan would replace one of two Democrats whose terms have expired; a Republican seat is also up for replacement.

Sullivan, who has served as associate general counsel at the Service Employees International Union since 1997, was described in a White House press release as "a staunch advocate for election reform and voter protection." But many campaign-finance reform advocates view Sullivan's appointment with suspicion because of his long tenure representing powerful labor unions, who have traditionally opposed regulations like those mandated under the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.

J. Gerald Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement that Sullivan's nomination "does not inspire confidence" because he has "repeatedly taken radical deregulatory positions" as a labor attorney. "If the White House is serious about improving the FEC, it will need to fill the two other vacancies on the commission with people who will shake it up, not fight right into the status quo," Hebert said.

But Public Campaign, a group that champions expanded public financing for political candidates, said that Sullivan was a "strong nominee" who has shown support for greater public financing of campaigns and for ensuring that "all of us are heard and counted in our electoral process."

The Center for Competitive Politics, which opposes many campaign finance restrictions, also praised the choice. "Sullivan's litigation on behalf of the SEIU and other organizations makes us optimistic that he understands how campaign finance restrictions like McCain-Feingold threaten Americans' political free speech rights," said Bradley A. Smith, a former FEC chairman who heads the center.

Obama's approach to the FEC is being watched closely in part because of uncertainty about his position on campaign finance issues. Obama angered some reform advocates by eschewing public financing as part of his record-breaking presidential campaign, but he also drew praise for refusing to take campaign contributions from political-action committees and registered lobbyists. The White House said Obama would name other nominees to the FEC in coming weeks.

"I think some people were looking to the Obama administration, hoping it would take an aggressive or different stand on how the FEC would operate," said Rick Hasen, an election law specialist at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "Thus far this appears to be business as usual."

By Web Politics Editor  |  May 4, 2009; 4:56 PM ET
Categories:  The Green Zone  
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What we need is a Supreme Court that doesn't equate money with free speech.

Posted by: RYBice | May 5, 2009 8:26 PM | Report abuse

I was one of the 75,000 people who filled out that long form to apply to be on various commissions, and I think the FEC was one of the ones I checked.

I think the FEC needs to at least push for more optional public financing. But what is really needed is a constitutional amendment that prevents the defining of a business as a "person."

Posted by: dotellen | May 4, 2009 9:59 PM | Report abuse

Organized labor is not an influence group we should be worrying about.

Posted by: rooster54 | May 4, 2009 5:15 PM | Report abuse

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