Through nearly four years as a member of the Federal Election Commission, Ann Ravel fought the good fight to rein in the power of big money in politics; she departs with a challenge to President Trump to overhaul the agency by staffing it with commissioners who are serious about enforcing campaign finance laws.
Ravel announced her resignation over the weekend; she will leave the FEC on March 1, ahead of the expiration of her term in April.
“It pains me to report that the agency remains dysfunctional, more so than ever, as I prepare to depart at the end of this month as my term nears its end,” Ravel wrote in a New York Times op-ed published on Sunday. “This is deeply worrisome, because the F.E.C.’s mission is to ensure fairness in elections. One of its core responsibilities is to make sure that all money in political campaigns is disclosed. As Justice Louis Brandeis said, sunlight is ‘the best of disinfectants.’ This quotation graces the street-facing window of the F.E.C.
“Unfortunately, a controlling bloc of three Republican commissioners who are ideologically opposed to the FEC’s purpose regularly ignores violations or drastically reduces penalties. The resulting paralysis has allowed over $800 million in “dark money” to infect our elections since Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums to elect or defeat candidates.
“These commissioners have been enabled by the commission’s very structure. By law, no more than three of its six members can be from the same party. Four must agree to begin an investigation.
“This breakdown has been purposeful. Last year, for instance, those three commissioners stopped the agency from even investigating allegations of pervasive workplace political coercion. These same commissioners also blocked enforcement actions against donors who admitted setting up sham limited liability corporations for the sole purpose of pumping anonymous campaign money into elections.”
Ravel backed up her allegations with a 25-page report, posted on the FEC’s website. Among other things, it lists 18 recent cases “in which the agency failed to require meaningful accountability from individuals, corporations, labor unions, and dark money groups. These cases are not an exhaustive list, but show the serious consequences of gridlock, including lack of disclosure and political committee registration, employer coercion, candidates’ personal use of campaign funds, and foreign national contributions. Although many of these cases captured public attention, in none did the Commission hold wrongdoers accountable for the full extent of their misconduct.”
Ravel’s departure gives President Trump a chance to reshape the agency and shapes up as a test of his willingness to make good on promises to break the power of big money. As a candidate, Trump argued that his ability to pay for much of his campaign out of his own pocket would insulate him against the influence of major donors; figures released today by the non-partisan Campaign Finance Institute show he raised $239 million from small dollar ($200 or less) donors, beating the previous record of $219 million held by former President Barack Obama.
But while courting small donors, Trump also welcomed the support of super PACs and non-profit “social welfare” organizations that are free to spend as much as they can raise to support or oppose candidates. The “outside groups,” which are barred by law from coordinating their work with candidates or parties, spent more than $355 million on Trump’s behalf, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
By law, Trump must appoint a Democrat or independent to fill Ravel’s seat. He also has an opportunity to replace the five remaining members of the FEC, all of whom are serving beyond the normal expiration of their terms because Obama and Republican congressional leaders could not agree on possible replacements.
Office: Common Cause National
Issues: Money in Politics