This year, huge sums of money will flow from small donors—those $27 givers Bernie Sanders can't stop talking about—and large ones into the war chests of Hillary Clinton's and Donald Trump's campaigns, into super PACs and dark-money outfits, into U.S. Senate races and state-level elections and ballot measures spanning the country. In an ideal world, the country's top cop on the money-in-politics beat, the Federal Election Commission, would be on high alert for wrongdoing and abuses by donors, candidates, consultants, and the rest.
But the current state of affairs at the FEC is far from ideal. Like so much of American politics, the commission is bitterly divided along ideological lines and so barely able to act on the most pressing matters that come before it. With the presidential race revving up and the big money getting ready for the fall, I wanted to share my 2015 profile of the FEC's commissioners, a lawyer and reformer who believed she could fix the FEC—from the inside. This is the story of what happened when Ann Ravel went to war with her own agency.
The Chairwoman Who's at War With Her Own Agency
Ann Ravel says the Federal Election Commission is badly broken. But is her very public crusade the way to fix it?
National Journal | October 13, 2015
ON A THURSDAY morning in June, the six commissioners of the Federal Election Commission—three Republican appointees, three Democratic appointees—convened at their headquarters in downtown Washington for their monthly open meeting. On the agenda was a provocative item: The group’s Democratic chairwoman, Ann Ravel, and one of her Democratic colleagues, Ellen Weintraub, had filed a petition with their own commission—as if they were ordinary citizens rather than two of the six people who actually run the place. The petition urged the FEC to beef up disclosure of anonymous campaign spending and to crack down on the increasingly commonplace practice of coordination between candidates and supposedly independent super PACs.
It was a highly unorthodox move—and that was precisely the point. “People will say: ‘You’re the chair of the commission. You should work from within.’ I tried,” Ravel told CNN at the time. “We needed to take more creative avenues to try and get public disclosure.”
Now the six commissioners had before them a technical question: not whether to act on the petition—which was unlikely to happen, given their 3-3 divide on major questions and the substantial partisan enmity among them—but merely whether to publish the text of the petition in the Federal Register. This formality set off what was surely one of the most bizarre exchanges in FEC history. In the view of Matthew Petersen, one of the three Republican commissioners, because Ravel and Weintraub were sitting commissioners neither qualified as a “person” eligible to petition the FEC. Caroline Hunter, another Republican commissioner, agreed, saying there was “a lot of common sense” in Petersen’s reasoning.
Ravel and Weintraub were taken aback. “First of all, let me say, I cannot believe that you are actually going to take the position that I am not a person,” Weintraub said. “A corporation is a person, but I’m not a person? … That’s how bad it has gotten. My colleagues will not admit that I am a person.”
“My children,” she later remarked, “are going to be really disappointed.”
“I think you’re not an alien,” Hunter deadpanned, “at least not today.”
Welcome to the 2015 iteration of the Federal Election Commission, the agency that ostensibly oversees political campaigns but in fact has largely become a rancorous, demoralized, and polarized bystander to our cash-drenched elections. As of June 30, there were 78 pending enforcement cases languishing on the FEC’s books, according to Commissioner Steven Walther, one of the three Democratic appointees. Twenty-three of those cases have been unresolved for more than a year, and five of them date back to the 2012 campaign, which might as well be ancient history. “On most major issues, the commission is unable to muster four votes to do much of anything,” says Anthony Herman, the FEC’s general counsel from 2011 to 2013. Phrases that get tossed out to describe the FEC include “toothless,” “the poster child for a broken Washington,” and “worse than dysfunctional.”
That last sentiment came from the mouth of Ann Ravel, who has chaired the commission since January. Ravel, who is 66, first arrived at the FEC in the fall of 2013, after a three-decade career as a public litigator and legal adviser in California. With no plans to hang around the Beltway once her stint at the commission is over, Ravel didn’t have much to lose in Washington—which may help explain why she has taken the unusual step of publicly going to war with her own agency.