By Gabriel Debenedetti
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Donald McGahn, a Republican member of the Federal Election Commission who has been an outspoken opponent of efforts to restrict campaign fundraising, is stepping down from the panel to take a job at a powerhouse lobbying and law firm in Washington.
McGahn announced late Tuesday that he will step down from the FEC - the bipartisan panel charged with enforcing the nation's election laws - on Friday. He will join the election law practice of the Patton Boggs firm, where he worked from 1995 to 2000.
McGahn, who was appointed to the six-member commission by President George W. Bush in 2008, is widely viewed as one of the most influential figures in the politically charged debate over the government's role in regulating campaigns. He has given voice to the mostly hands-off approach to regulation that is favored by many conservative Republicans.
Critics say his aggressive approach helped lead to a series of split, partisan decisions by the FEC that effectively neutralized its ability to regulate elections.
McGahn's tenure at the FEC coincided with a period of significant changes in U.S. campaign finance law that have weakened efforts by Democrats and some moderate Republicans to limit the influence of big-money donors in elections.
A 2010 decision by the conservative-led Supreme Court struck down limits on campaign fundraising and spending by corporations and independent groups. That led to the creation of free-spending "super" political action committees (PACs) and forced the FEC to review and revise its rules.
"I've been there a little over five years, and I felt like I had done all I could do. It was time for new challenges," McGahn told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.
He added that he was proud that the FEC "is much more transparent and open than it was when I was appointed. ... Folks participating in politics (do) not have to fear the application of ad hoc rules."
McGahn, a former counsel to the National Republican Congressional Committee, recently led an unsuccessful push to change FEC rules so that its lawyers could not share information with federal prosecutors without the commission's approval. He said this was aimed at restricting the actions of the agency's general counsel.
The FEC's top lawyer, Anthony Herman, resigned in July as a result of McGahn's effort.
After the 2010 Supreme Court ruling, McGahn routinely voted against mandating the disclosure of donations, and stopped efforts to strengthen disclosure rules in an effort to minimize regulations.
The FEC has room for six commissioners, traditionally split between Republicans and Democrats.
But partisan gridlock in the Democrat-led U.S. Senate had long discouraged Democratic President Barack Obama from nominating new commissioners, and the panel now has only five members - two Democrats and three Republicans, including McGahn. His term expired in 2009, but he has remained on the FEC, awaiting a replacement.
The logjam over FEC appointments broke on Tuesday, when the Senate Rules Committee approved two nominees Obama put forward in June: Democrat Ann Ravel and Republican Lee Goodman. Both are widely expected to be confirmed by the full Senate.
(Editing by David Lindsey and Jackie Frank)