Federal Election Commissioner (FEC) Ann Ravel’s rocky tenure ended this week on March 1. She resigned with a 25-page screed that painted the campaign finance agency as rife with dysfunction. But Ravel’s difficulties were hers, not the FEC’s.
She misunderstood both her and the commission’s role. And when she couldn’t mold the FEC into a federal version of the state agency she previously headed, she lashed out in ways that did little but aid her self-promotion and increase tension.
Ravel previously directed the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC). Her tenure was controversial but aligned with Golden State leftism. With an activist’s eye for publicity, she sought high-profile cases and headline-grabbing initiatives. Sometimes she got facts wrong, sometimes she got backlash like when she proposed to regulate bloggers. But she cemented herself as a reformer zealot and started at the FEC in 2013.
In Washington, Ravel tried to remake the FEC into FCCP-East. A bureaucrat-dominated colossal that overreached, bullied, and pursued “social goals” in the name of democratic integrity. But Washington isn’t California.
Congress created the FEC shortly after Watergate with six commissioners and barred more than three commissioners from one political party. It rightly worried about partisan control over an agency that would regulate political campaigns. Without the FEC’s even format, partisan agendas can run wild.
This isn’t hypothetical. Bureaucratic overlords in Montana and Wisconsin as well as California made headlines for garish abuses.
But Ravel bitterly complained the format enabled intransigent Republican commissioners to cause gridlock. She cited statistics showing increasing ties on enforcement matters. Republicans slice the numbers differently. Regardless, tie votes aren’t nefarious attempts to skirt the agency’s mission. They represent the agency working as planned where actions must be taken on a bipartisan basis.
Since 2007, the Supreme Court has deregulated much campaign finance on constitutional grounds. What remains are often hard cases where fundamental philosophical differences arise.
Those who file complaints to trigger FEC investigations have the right to appeal to lifetime-appointed judges in the event of 3-3 ties. If the commission dismisses a complaint, even by a tie, the judiciary can order the FEC to act on the case or provide an explanation acceptable to the court.
Strong democratic oversight also protects the system. If the political branches shared Ravel’s concerns, they could restructure the agency. Some in Congress do want the FPPC model. But their inability to garner requisite support is a matter of politics not agency dereliction. Put simply, people above Ravel’s rank don’t share her sky-is-falling view.
Ravel’s complaint about colleagues “thwarting” and “obstructing” the law to produce these ties is especially rich. She blatantly ignored the FEC’s own internet-speech regulations because she didn’t like them.
Eleven years ago, the FEC exempted most online activity. Yet Ravel flouted this mandate several times. The commission’s lack of control irks Ravel who sees cyberspace as one more place the government can lord over. Bloggers in California became YouTube videos at the FEC.
Ravel shunned the FEC’s mission in other ways. She held a “Women’s Forum” to explore the lack of female candidates. This was wholly outside the FEC’s purview. And Ravel’s hosted it solo without the other commissioners and with uniformly ideological speakers.
The saddest part of Ravel’s tenure was her own dereliction of commission duties to “go rouge” with a two-year publicity blitz. Op-eds, TV shows, “listening tours” accomplished nothing but allowed her to constantly spout scary numbers while branding herself the last defender of America’s political virtue. Hillary Clinton campaign lawyer Marc Elias, in an email released by WikiLeaks, stated a “New York Times” story was “the product of Ann Ravel’s endless desire to be portrayed in the press as a profile in courage.”
From the beginning, the political branches recognized the FEC’s potential danger. Just six years after it started, many were ready to ditch it and almost did. Iowa Senator Roger Jepsen complained of the FEC “(a)ctivists and bureaucrats build their own little empire and then things get out of hand.”
Ravel embodied those concerns. Except 36 years on a nonprofit cottage industry exists that lionize Ravel’s brand of bureaucrat-centric “reform.” She will reportedly join them, serving on multiple boards.
It’s a smart move. These idealists live in a world untethered to actually representing political speakers before government agencies. Instead, they wax on about “saving democracy.” She’ll fit right in.
This post originally ran in National Review on March 3rd 2017.