The Commission on Presidential Debates was established in 1987 to organize debates between the candidates for president and vice president every four years — or, as the organization’s website puts it, “to ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners.”
The League of Women Voters had sponsored presidential debates from 1976 through 1984 but withdrew in 1987 to protest a format the Democratic and Republican parties had sought to impose upon it.
Today, the panel’s chairmen are Michael McCurry, a lobbyist and former spokesman for President Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, and Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., president and chief executive officer of the American Gaming Association and former longtime chairman of the Republican National Committee.
The commission is organized as a nonprofit, nonpartisan, 510(c)(3) corporation. It receives financial support from independent donors. Sponsors for the debate cycle completed in Florida on October 22 included the Anheuser-Busch Cos.; tax attorney and certified public accountant Sheldon Cohen of Washington investment advisers Farr, Miller & Washington; Washington-based Crowell & Moring; and Southwest Airlines Co. The debate venues also contribute.
The organization hardly lies dormant during nonelection years — it provides assistance to emerging democracies that want to establish candidate debates, including Bosnia, Colombia, Haiti, Lebanon, Trinidad and Uganda.
It has a grand total of two full-time employees — executive director Janet Brown and associate producer Nancy Henrietta — with the help of independent contractors including producers, lighting and sound engineers, ticketing professionals, credential experts and logistics consultants. The commission conducts its international activity in association with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.
LEGAL TEAM AND OUTSIDE COUNSEL
Lewis Loss is the commission’s outside general counsel. He is a co-founder of Thompson, Loss & Judge in Washington, where he practices as a commercial litigator. Some of the commission’s work goes to Thompson Loss attorneys, but Loss also calls upon Cohen, who is a former commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service (tax); Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner (intellectual property); and Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz (First Amendment and media).
Much of the outside projects are relatively contained, Loss said; the firms stand by until needed, often on short notice, he added.
The biggest legal threats to the commission tend to come from candidates who are not invited to participate in presidential debates, Loss said. “Most of my time from a pure legal perspective is formulation, implementation and defense of candidate selection criteria.”
The most common reason a candidate is not invited is because he or she hasn’t received a composite 15 percent approval rating in five national public opinion polls.
Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate, and Jill Stein of the Green Party both sued for inclusion in this year’s debates — they alleged, respectively, antitrust and civil rights violations. Both efforts failed.
Loss’ role as general counsel spans beyond legal issues and into the main focus: voter education.
“One of the really rewarding things is the opportunity to advise clients not only on pure legal matters, but broader questions such as debate formats and other issues that go to enhancing voter education and the value of the debates,” he said.
ON THE DEBATE TRAIL
Loss advises the commission on corporate governance, including compliance with U.S. Federal Elections Commission regulations, tax law, District of Columbia law governing nonprofit organizations and extensive contract work when putting the presidential debates together.
And an immense amount of work goes into the televised debate, he said. The process of selecting a location begins two years before the candidates show up.
Loss and his team are responsible for the contracts among the commission, the debate sites and all of the organizations needed to put on a live broadcast. These contributors include the lighting and sound technicians, set builders, hotels and trucking companies. The commission tries to use the same engineers every four years, in the interest of stability. The set for the debates is built in one location and shipped from site to site. Once it gets there, Loss said, it takes several days to assemble.
Naturally, security arrangements must be tailor-made for each location, in consort with the Secret Service.
“These events are the only events where candidates come together in the election process,” Loss said. “This year, there is a sitting president and vice president. That add to security issues.”
ROUTE TO THE TOP
Loss earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1980 from the University of Michigan and his J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1983.
He then became an associate at Ross, Dixon & Masback, a small firm that later would become part of Atlanta-based Troutman Sanders. “I was the low man on the totem pole,” he said.
The firm had a legal relationship with the debates commission from the very start. Working his way up, Loss became the organization’s lead lawyer during the early 1990s. When he decided to start his own firm in 2003, the commission followed him as a client. He has been with the organization for 25 years.
Other than his practical experience with the commission, Loss considers his background as a commercial litigator the best preparation for his position. It taught him to spot problems and solve them — useful skills for a client whose activities fall under tremendous public scrutiny, he said.
His advice to aspiring general counsel was simple: Don’t jump to conclusions, because a wide variety of topics will cross your desk and you can’t be an expert in all of them.
“Defer your advice until you have had an opportunity to work through the issue and have a basis to provide thoughtful counsel,” he said.
Loss was born in New York City but spent most of his adolescence in Michigan. He plays in two competitive men’s baseball leagues — the Men’s Senior Baseball League and the Ponce de Leon Baseball League (named, of course, for the Spanish explorer who searched for the Fountain of Youth).
He is married to Gretchen Loss and has two sons from a previous marriage: Joey, 20, and Jack, 14.
LAST BOOK AND MOVIE
Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand; The Debt.