WASHINGTON – The Senate on Tuesday confirmed a conservative Texas lawyer nominated by President Donald Trump to the Federal Election Commission, restoring a voting quorum on the agency for the first time since August amid a mounting backlog of complaints and requests for guidance in an election year.
Trey Trainor, an Austin, Texas-based election law attorney, has pushed for less regulation of money in politics and opposed efforts to require politically active nonprofit organizations to disclose their donors. He previously advised the Republican National Committee and Trump during the 2016 election.
The party-line confirmation of Trainor ends the longest period in the agency’s history without a quorum, giving the panel the four votes necessary to regulate and enforce federal campaign finance laws.
With Trainor, the commission is again equally divided ideologically, which could resume the FEC’s practice of often deadlocking on alleged election violations. Two vacancies remain on the panel, and it is unclear when the Senate will take action to fill them.
Trainor’s nomination had been in limbo since 2017 amid questions over his social media postings and a standstill among Senate leaders on an approach to appointing commissioners. Government transparency groups had widely opposed his nomination.
Meanwhile, campaign finance lawyers from all sides of the political spectrum had pleaded for a fully functioning FEC.
During a hearing on his nomination earlier this month, Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the Senate Rules and Administration Committee chairman, said he hoped to restore the FEC’s quorum to help candidates “navigate the novel campaign issues that have been created by this pandemic.”
The final Senate vote on Trainor’s nomination was 49 to 43.
“I am grateful for the trust that President Trump has placed in me and I am heartened by the confirmation of the U.S. Senate. I look forward to serving the American people in this important position,” Trainor said in a statement.
Caroline Hunter, a Republican who serves as the chairwoman of the panel, said she was looking forward to a fresh perspective.
“He has a lot of experience in representing candidates and PACs, and I think that practical perspective will be good for the commission,” she said.
In the absence of a quorum, the commission could not vote on complaints or give guidance through advisory opinions, which help political candidates navigate complex areas of campaign finance law.
In recent months, advocacy groups had been filing lawsuits against the FEC in an effort to speed up the enforcement process, essentially bypassing the complaints process at the agency.
Hunter said she is eager for the commission to be able to defend itself against such suits and conduct official work again. “The first thing I plan to do is vote to authorize the commission to defend itself in federal court to prevent the speech regulators from shaping the law with no input from the commission,” she said.
Democratic FEC commissioner Ellen Weintraub said she is ready to get back to work, noting that there are 350 matters on the agency’s enforcement docket and 227 items waiting for action.
“I hope to have a constructive working relationship with Trey,” Weintraub said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
Brad Smith, chairman of the conservative group Institute for Free Speech, welcomed Trainor’s confirmation, saying the agency’s work is especially crucial in an election year. Smith, a former FEC chairman, called on Senate and White House leaders to restore the full six-member commission.
“Trey Trainor is a well-qualified and welcome addition to the Commission. The FEC can now, hopefully, defend its actions in court and provide guidance to speakers on how to comply with the law,” Smith said in a statement.
Government-transparency advocates said they are concerned about Trainor’s views on the disclosure of political donors, and called for a dramatic overhaul to end partisan gridlock at the FEC.
“We hope that Trey Trainor will faithfully uphold the anti-corruption laws on the books and work with his colleagues to swiftly resolve the backlog of complaints and advisory opinion requests before the FEC, despite the concerns raised about his qualifications during the confirmation process,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, which seeks to reduce the role of money in politics.