The U.S. Election Watchdog Needs 4 of 6 Members to Enforce the Law. It Now Has 3.

The Federal Election Commission, the beleaguered independent agency that is supposed to serve as the watchdog over how money is raised and spent in American elections, has long been criticized as dysfunctional, if not toothless.

Now the state of affairs at the agency is poised to get even worse: It will no longer even have enough commissioners to legally meet.

The resignation of Vice Chairman Matthew S. Petersen, announced on Monday and scheduled for the end of August, will effectively freeze the F.E.C.’s governance, leaving it one person short of a quorum and thus unable to take on some of its most basic actions, including holding board meetings, starting audits, making new rules and levying fines for campaign finance violations.

“Voters should be extremely concerned,” said Ann M. Ravel, a Democrat and former F.E.C. chairwoman who stepped down in 2017 and who has not been replaced. “If you do not have the ability to do any kind of enforcement, then there isn’t any kind of respect for the law.”

“It could end up being the Wild West,” Ms. Ravel added.

Four F.E.C. commissioners are necessary to meet, and there will be only three left on what should be a six-person governing board. The terms of all three commissioners who are still on the board have expired, though the law allows them to remain.

CreditAlex Wong/Getty Images

The current chairwoman, Ellen Weintraub, said in a statement that “the United States’ election cop is still on the 2020 campaign beat.”

But she acknowledged that some of the commission’s key functions — such as voting on whether campaign laws have been violated — would be delayed until a fourth member was confirmed, even as staff members continue to work.

Ms. Weintraub urged President Trump to nominate and the Senate to confirm additional members immediately. She noted that the commission would continue to publish millions of campaign donations and “shine a strong spotlight on the finances of the 2020 campaign” even without a quorum.

Mr. Trump did nominate James E. Trainor III, a Republican lawyer in Texas, to serve on the commission in late 2017, but Mr. Trainor has not been confirmed by the Senate. There has been a long tradition of presidents nominating and the Senate confirming Democratic and Republican commissioners simultaneously.

With the resignation of Mr. Petersen, a Republican, the White House could call for Mr. Trainor to be confirmed without a Democratic counterpart. The commission cannot have more than three members of either political party, a balanced arrangement that has often led to gridlock.

Donald J. Simon, counsel to the independent watchdog group Democracy 21, said the agency had gone “from dysfunctional to nonfunctional.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Angelo Roefaro, a spokesman for Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, who as the top Democrat in the Senate would traditionally have input in the selection of a Democratic commissioner, said, “Congress should address this issue quickly because we need a fully functioning F.E.C.”

The F.E.C. last fell short of a quorum more than a decade ago, during the 2008 election cycle.

Adav Noti, a former associate counsel at the F.E.C. who was at the commission during the last partial shutdown, called it a “potential nightmare” in the short term. “What they can do in absence of a quorum is push paper around,” he said. “Literally.”

Among the challenges noted by Mr. Noti, who is now a senior director for the Campaign Legal Center, was that the F.E.C. could not defend itself in court from lawsuits without a commission vote.

The only potential upside of the crisis, he said, is if it causes the White House and Senate to agree on an entirely new slate of commissioners to “clean house” at the struggling agency.

Mr. Petersen did not say in his resignation letter why he was stepping down with less than a week’s notice. He was nominated by Mr. Trump for a seat on the United States District Court for the District of Columbia in 2017, but he struggled to answer some routine law questions at his confirmation hearing, under questioning by Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana.

His floundering went viral and Mr. Petersen withdrew, writing, “I had hoped that my nearly two decades of public service might carry more weight than my two worst minutes on television.” He remained on the F.E.C. and his colleagues praised his service on Monday.

Ms. Ravel, who wrote that the agency was “failing to enforce the nation’s campaign finance laws” while she served as vice chairwoman in 2014, said in an interview that the shortage of commissioners had been predictable for more than a year. She laid blame on Donald F. McGahn II, who spent years on the F.E.C. before working for Mr. Trump as White House counsel, saying he had caused some of the agency’s gridlock and dysfunctional culture.

“When I saw initially that Don McGahn went to be the White House counsel, I predicted publicly that what that meant was that all agencies in the federal government whose job it was to protect the public interest were going to be rendered useless,” she said. “And I believe that prediction came to fruition.”

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