For a political reformer, Ann Ravel had what might have been the job of a lifetime: chair of the Federal Election Commission. But as Ravel ends her year as chairwoman, the commission is much as it was upon her arrival: paralyzed by partisanship.
It’s not for her lack of effort. Ravel tried logic, argument, persuasion, and, exasperated, she tried to embarrass fellow commissioners. Her most important accomplishment is that she told the story of the broken commission to anyone who would listen, not just the insiders who pay attention to such matters.
On “The Daily Show,” she agreed with with the comedic interviewer’s assessment that the commission is about as functional as men’s nipples. Over the top, perhaps, but no other commission chair has appeared on such a show. It turns out that at least three of six of commissioners were beyond embarrassment.
“It was important to let people know that this agency established to enforce the law wasn’t doing its job ... to let the public know what the FEC is intended to do and what is failing to do,” Ravel told a Sacramento Bee editorial board member.
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Heading into the 2016 elections, certain facts are clear: Billions will be spent to influence the outcome of elections. No matter how diligent the press and voters are, no one will know the full magnitude of the spending, or the identities of all donors seeking to sway your vote. If evidence arises that donors or recipients have strayed, the Federal Election Commission won’t do much.
Congress took steps to keep the public in the dark by approving the Omnibus Appropriations Act earlier this month. The act bars the Internal Revenue Service from imposing further regulations on campaign operations that masquerade as nonprofit social welfare organizations.
The bill seeks to bar the federal government from insisting companies with federal contracts disclose political donations, and limits the Securities and Exchange Commission’s ability to require publicly traded corporations to list their campaign donations.
All that would matter less if the Federal Election Commission were doing its jobs. It’s not. Dysfunction has become part of the six-member commission’s anatomy.
Republicans appoint three commissioners and Democrats appoint three. President Barack Obama nominated Ravel. Party affiliations aside, she believes election law should be enforced. Republican appointees question the legitimacy of many post-Watergate restrictions.
Dysfunction has become part of the six-member Federal Election Commission’s anatomy.
Almost six years after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Citizens United v. FEC ruling opening the way for greater spending, the commission has not developed rules governing newly bloated political action committees, the super PACs. Because of the commission’s inaction, campaign committees continue to cloak their donors’ identity.
Ravel and Commissioner Ellen Weintraub confronted Republican members in a case involving one of many dark-money groups, Commission on Hope, Growth & Opportunity. Although the group acknowledged its goal was to influence elections, the commission deadlocked on whether to compel disclosure of its of donors.
“We have a responsibility to Congress, the courts, and, most importantly, the American people, to enforce the laws as they exist, not as we would like them to be. The commission is falling far short of that responsibility,” Ravel and Weintraub wrote in November.
Under Ravel, the FEC’s website has become somewhat more user-friendly. Another potential improvement involves U.S. senators’ refusal to file their campaign reports online, so they would be accessible to anyone with a computer. The commission is working with Captricity, an Oakland tech company that seeks to bypass the Senate and place senators’ campaign finance reports online.
We understand why politicians don’t want voters to know who seeks to rent their votes. It’s inexplicable why the Federal Election Commission, established to serve as a watchdog, would be complicit.
As Ravel hands off the gavel, we urge incoming chair Republican Matthew S. Petersen to be as public as Ravel, defending his position and explaining why voters aren’t entitled to information about the money that shapes, influences and too often twists their democracy.