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Uneasy balance

By law, no party can have more than three members on the six-member panel and, by custom, a president keeps the FEC’s 3-3 partisan balance by asking the opposing party’s leader in the Senate to recommend a nominee when a slot opens.

Michael Brumas, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, pinned the blame on Mr. Obama for the absence of nominations, but would not say whether his office has forwarded any names to the White House.

Soon after assuming the presidency, Mr. Obama nominated labor lawyer John Sullivan to fill one of the Democratic slots, but Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, put a hold on his confirmation. The two men, who co-sponsored the most significant limits on campaign finances in decades, said they wanted all of the FEC’s expired slots filled at once.

The Senate usually votes on Republican and Democratic nominees in tandem, but Mr. McConnell did not appear in any rush to select other Republicans to sit on the commission. So after more than a year in limbo, Mr. Obama withdrew Mr. Sullivan’s nomination.

McConnell’s dissent

Mr. Holman blames the impasse on Mr. McConnell, who has been critical of campaign finance regulations as a violation of the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and press.

The ineffectiveness of the federal watchdog panel is “really what Mitch McConnell has in mind,” Mr. Holman said. “He’s despised every campaign finance law he’s ever seen and he certainly can’t convince the public, but what he can do is appoint people who don’t believe in the law and won’t enforce it.”

Mr. Holman also accuses the three Republican commissioners — Caroline Hunter, Donald McGahn II and Matthew Petersen — of causing the FEC’s inability to agree even on matters that he says are clear-cut.

He and others said that previous Republican commissioners preferred more-lenient regulations, but they understood their role to be enforcing the law as it stands, not engaging in the equivalent of judicial activism.

“It’s quite clear that the three Republican commissioners fundamentally disagree with many of the campaign finance laws on the books and would rather not enforce them,” said Paul S. Ryan, a lawyer at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, whose president, Trevor Potter, was a Republican commissioner.

While many Republican commissioners provide legal justification for their decisions, sometimes, “when you look at their interpretations, it’s pretty clearly contrary to what the statute says,” Mr. Noble said.

For example, the three Republicans said that using Mr. Obama’s voice in a commercial and referring to the White House would not be making reference to a “clearly identified” candidate, a test that triggers restrictions on spending and donations.

Value judgments

Republicans say the commissioners are standing up for free speech, and despite previously advocating for disclosure, Mr. McConnell has recently said that revealing names of donors amounts to the publication of an “enemies list” that targets donors for harassment.

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