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?

UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 31: FEC Commissioner Lee Goodman makes a statement during his first meeting at the Commission's downtown office, as Chair Ellen Weintraub, and Commissioner Ann Ravel, look on. It was the first meeting attended by Ravel and Goodman. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
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Andy Kroll
Oct. 13, 2015, 10:06 a.m.

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.

From Ravel’s per­spect­ive, the three Re­pub­lic­an com­mis­sion­ers reg­u­larly vote in lock­step to dead­lock and ham­string the com­mis­sion. These com­mis­sion­ers, Ravel says, de­cline to en­force cam­paign-fin­ance laws be­cause they largely don’t think the laws should ex­ist in the first place. “I nev­er ex­pec­ted a body such as this, that was in­ten­ded to achieve a fair res­ult based on the law, to be one where people didn’t ac­tu­ally have re­spect for the un­der­ly­ing law,” she re­cently told me.

From the Re­pub­lic­ans’ per­spect­ive, Ravel takes an ex­cess­ively ex­pans­ive view of ex­ist­ing reg­u­la­tions. “We’re not in­ter­ested in go­ing after people un­less the law is fairly clear, and we’re not will­ing to take the law bey­ond where it’s writ­ten,” Re­pub­lic­an com­mis­sion­er Car­oline Hunter told The New York Times in May. Cleta Mitchell, a law­yer who rep­res­ents a panoply of right-lean­ing groups, went fur­ther: “All these things that Ann Ravel does are just her com­plaints about not be­ing able to be head queen and do whatever she wants with tax­pay­ers’ money whenev­er and however she wants,” she told me. “I find her con­duct ap­palling.”

Ravel and I spoke on five dif­fer­ent oc­ca­sions throughout the sum­mer and in­to the fall, mostly at her of­fice. She told me about her ca­reer in law, her ten­ure at the FEC, and her un­der­stand­ing of how things work in the na­tion’s cap­it­al. I came away with the sense that she had not giv­en up hope of leav­ing a mark of some kind at the FEC, but her views were im­bued with plenty of fa­tal­ism. “I of­ten wake up and think, ‘What did I get my­self in­to?’ ” she says. One day, I no­ticed a New York­er car­toon taped to a shelf out­side the door to Ravel’s of­fice. A man and wo­man are walk­ing out­side the U.S. Cap­it­ol. “Polit­ics,” the wo­man is say­ing to the man, “is the art of noth­ing is pos­sible.”

Ann Ravel is the chair of the Federal Elections Commission.  Chet Susslin

In­deed, it’s tough not to con­clude that the coun­try’s top elec­tion reg­u­lat­or was (or still is) naïve for be­liev­ing she could some­how break the im­passe muck­ing up our cam­paign-fin­ance sys­tem. “I think her heart was in the right place,” says Neil Re­iff, a Demo­crat­ic elec­tion law­yer in Wash­ing­ton. “I just think she didn’t un­der­stand the rules of en­gage­ment—and that’s ali­en­ated her. But there are def­in­ite rules of en­gage­ment in this town when it comes to cam­paign fin­ance, and she may not have un­der­stood that.”

“This is what hap­pens,” he ad­ded, “when Mr. Smith comes to Wash­ing­ton to reg­u­late cam­paign-fin­ance law.”

THE HIS­TORY OF money and polit­ics in Amer­ica is a long and messy tale, but it tends to fol­low a fa­mil­i­ar pat­tern: The arc bends and bends to­ward de­reg­u­la­tion, few­er rules, more money—un­til it snaps back in the wake of scan­dal and pub­lic out­rage.

There is no clear­er ex­ample than Wa­ter­gate. That epis­ode con­jures im­ages of break-ins, the Sat­urday Night Mas­sacre, and Wood­ward and Bern­stein. But Wa­ter­gate was, in large part, about money in polit­ics. There were cash drops in tele­phone booths, cam­paign funds laundered through Mex­ico to a Wa­ter­gate burg­lar, and mil­lions of dol­lars in il­leg­al cor­por­ate dona­tions flow­ing in­to Pres­id­ent Nix­on’s reelec­tion ef­fort.

And so, the scan­dal ushered in the first com­pre­hens­ive ef­fort to reg­u­late the flow of money in and out of polit­ics—in­clud­ing the ad­vent of the FEC, which was cre­ated to en­force the new rules on cam­paign giv­ing and spend­ing. These re­forms won bi­par­tis­an sup­port in both cham­bers in the mid-1970s, with 75 per­cent of House Re­pub­lic­ans and 41 per­cent of Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans vot­ing for them.

The Su­preme Court’s 1976 de­cision in Buckley v. Va­leo whittled away at some of those new lim­its, but for much of the next few dec­ades, the FEC ably ful­filled its reg­u­lat­ory mis­sion. Un­til as re­cently as the 2000s, the com­mis­sion man­aged to ar­rive at bi­par­tis­an, four- or five- or even six-vote ma­jor­it­ies on the ma­jor is­sues and en­force­ment cases that landed on its dock­et. For in­stance, the FEC levied six-fig­ure pen­al­ties against sev­er­al prom­in­ent out­side groups that spent heav­ily on the 2004 pres­id­en­tial race, in­clud­ing the George Sor­os–backed lib­er­al group Amer­ica Com­ing To­geth­er and the con­ser­vat­ive Swift Boat Vet­er­ans and POWs for Truth.

Of course, those who favored great­er over­sight and lim­its on cam­paign spend­ing saw these fines—an­nounced in 2006 and 2007—as too little, too late. Yet it was un­deni­able that the FEC had teeth and was go­ing after some of the biggest play­ers in na­tion­al polit­ics.

It wasn’t un­til the mid- to late-2000s that the FEC began to grow more ideo­lo­gic­al. Un­der the care­ful watch of then–Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, an avowed foe of cam­paign reg­u­la­tion, con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans nom­in­ated and con­firmed com­mis­sion­ers who took a very nar­row view of the law. Don­ald McGahn, a GOP-ap­poin­ted com­mis­sion­er who served from 2008 to 2013, once boas­ted at a leg­al sym­posi­um: “I’m not en­for­cing the law as Con­gress passed it. I plead guilty as charged.” An ana­lys­is by Pub­lic Cit­izen found that 3-3 dead­locks on en­force­ment cases oc­curred 1 per­cent of the time from 2003 to 2007 but spiked to 16 per­cent in 2009 and 11 per­cent in 2010. Total pen­al­ties col­lec­ted by the FEC in ma­jor en­force­ment cases have de­clined since 2008, hit­ting the low­est mark in his­tory last year.

Not help­ing mat­ters was the two-year stretch the com­mis­sion went without a chief law­yer. In Ju­ly 2013, then–Gen­er­al Coun­sel An­thony Her­man resigned largely out of frus­tra­tion, after the com­mis­sion failed to act on sev­er­al of his of­fice’s re­com­mend­a­tions and sought to lim­it his abil­ity to share in­form­a­tion with the Justice De­part­ment. The FEC didn’t name a new top law­yer un­til this Au­gust, at which point the best it could do was ap­point one of Her­man’s depu­ties, Daniel Petalas, to a 120-day term as act­ing gen­er­al coun­sel while the com­mis­sion searched for a full-time re­place­ment.

At some level, this grid­lock simply mir­rors the broad­er po­lar­iz­a­tion pre­vent­ing any­thing sub­stant­ive from get­ting done in Wash­ing­ton. “If you pick any three people who reas­on­ably rep­res­en­ted the view­points of Demo­crat­ic poli­cy­makers and [three who] reas­on­ably rep­res­en­ted Re­pub­lic­an poli­cy­makers, you’d have the same kind of prob­lems,” says Dav­id Ma­son, a former Re­pub­lic­an com­mis­sion­er.

It’s also, in the words of Marc Eli­as, a prom­in­ent Demo­crat­ic elec­tion law­yer, “a very un­settled time in the law.” You’ll get whip­lash read­ing Sandra Day O’Con­nor and John Paul Stevens’s ma­jor­ity opin­ion de­fend­ing cam­paign-fin­ance laws in the 2003 Mc­Con­nell case and then pars­ing the Roberts Court’s strongly anti-reg­u­lat­ory opin­ions in Wis­con­sin Right to Life (2007), Cit­izens United (2010), and Mc­Cutcheon (2014).

All of which has helped to pave the way for an en­vel­ope-push­ing free-for-all in the 2016 cam­paign cycle. Can­did­ates seem to be ex­ploit­ing every weak­ness, gray area, and loop­hole they can find. There was the charade of Jeb Bush delay­ing (and delay­ing and delay­ing) his of­fi­cial en­trance in­to the pres­id­en­tial race so he could run around the coun­try rais­ing un­lim­ited sums of money for his “in­de­pend­ent” su­per PAC. Mean­while, Carly Fior­ina has ef­fect­ively out­sourced many of the op­er­a­tions of her ac­tu­al cam­paign to her su­per PAC. (In May, the FEC told Fior­ina’s su­per PAC, then named Carly for Amer­ica, that it couldn’t use the can­did­ate’s name as its own. So it re-branded it­self as Con­ser­vat­ive, Au­then­t­ic, Re­spons­ive Lead­er­ship for You and for Amer­ica—CARLY for Amer­ica.) For its part, Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign is col­lab­or­at­ing with a su­per PAC called Cor­rect the Re­cord, which churns out quick-hit re­search in de­fense of Clin­ton. “There’s a Wild West feel­ing to it, be­cause cli­ents say, ‘I’m not go­ing to fight with one hand be­hind my back,’ ” says Tre­vor Pot­ter, a Re­pub­lic­an law­yer and former FEC chair­man. “ ‘Every­one else is do­ing it; I have to do it, too.’ ”

It would be ex­cess­ive to solely blame the FEC for this situ­ation. Elec­tion law­yers say Con­gress, more than any oth­er body, bears the bur­den for mod­ern­iz­ing the co­ordin­a­tion laws around can­did­ates and su­per PACs. But at the very least, the FEC hasn’t done much to put a stop to the Wild West at­mo­sphere. It’s the com­mis­sion’s job to in­ter­pret court de­cisions and their im­pact on the law for polit­ic­al prac­ti­tion­ers, yet more than five years after the Cit­izens United and Speech­ de­cisions ushered in su­per PACs, the com­mis­sion has yet to write any new rules about these groups—rules that could, for in­stance, spell out what spe­cific­ally con­sti­tutes il­leg­al co­ordin­a­tion between su­per PACs and cam­paigns. Ravel says the com­mis­sion could also vote to open a form­al in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to one of the many com­plaints it has re­ceived about cam­paigns co­ordin­at­ing with su­per PACs—but so far it has de­clined to do that, too.

As she sees it, the FEC is very much to blame for the cur­rent, al­most any­thing-goes at­ti­tude of cam­paigns and su­per PACs. “What has more than any­thing be­come clear to me,” she said dur­ing one of our con­ver­sa­tions, “about the im­pact of the fail­ure of the FEC—”

“You’re say­ing it’s a fail­ure,” I in­ter­rup­ted.

“It’s a fail­ure to ful­fill its func­tion,” she said. “Be­cause of that, we see a cam­paign where all of the can­did­ates—I’m not singling out any­body—are think­ing that there’s not a cop on the beat.”

All these things that Ann Ravel does are just her com­plaints about not be­ing able to be head queen and do whatever she wants with tax­pay­ers’ money whenev­er and however she wants. 
Cleta Mitchell, a law­yer who rep­res­ents right-lean­ing groups

NOT LONG AFTER the Re­pub­lic­an com­mis­sion­er help­fully ob­served that the Demo­crat­ic com­mis­sion­er was not in fact an ali­en, I met Ravel for the first time in per­son. Tak­ing our seats, I cas­u­ally asked how she was. “I’m good. Well, ac­tu­ally, not that good. But you know,” she said, laugh­ing un­eas­ily. She soun­ded par­tic­u­larly grim about the FEC that day—less happy war­ri­or, more out­right pess­im­ist. When the sub­ject of her fel­low com­mis­sion­ers came up, she said of Petersen, the Re­pub­lic­an ap­pointee who chal­lenged her “per­son” status: “I don’t know how he looks at him­self in the morn­ing.” (The three Re­pub­lic­an com­mis­sion­ers de­clined re­quests to be in­ter­viewed for this story, al­though Re­pub­lic­an Com­mis­sion­er Lee Good­man sent me a state­ment tout­ing his work with Ravel on the up­com­ing launch of a new FEC web­site.)

Ravel de­scribes her­self as an “old-time gov­ern­ment per­son,” which is to say someone who be­lieves that pulling the levers of state and fed­er­al gov­ern­ment can cre­ate a more equit­able polit­ic­al sys­tem and demo­cracy. When it comes to cam­paign fin­ance, it isn’t the specter of cor­rup­tion per se that mo­tiv­ates her; it’s the fear that reg­u­lar cit­izens are tun­ing out polit­ics—opt­ing not to vote or donate or run for of­fice—be­cause of all the time we spend de­bat­ing wheth­er politi­cians are bought and sold.

Her polit­ic­al philo­sophy stems from her up­bring­ing. Raised all over the world, Ravel grew up in a Demo­crat­ic fam­ily that even­tu­ally settled in the San Fran­cisco Bay Area. A self-de­scribed “act­iv­ist at heart,” she em­braced the so­cial move­ments of the 1960s and 1970s, join­ing the Con­gress of Ra­cial Equal­ity and the Stu­dent Non­vi­ol­ent Co­ordin­at­ing Com­mit­tee, and re­gis­ter­ing with the Peace and Free­dom Party in col­lege. Her moth­er, a Brazili­an im­mig­rant who’d mar­ried Ravel’s fath­er while he was work­ing in South Amer­ica as a met­eor­o­lo­gist, took Ravel to see prom­in­ent fe­male politi­cians speak and im­bued in her a “sym­pathy for the un­der­dog” as well as a re­spons­ib­il­ity to try “to make sure that things are bet­ter for the com­munity as a whole,” she re­calls.

She worked for dec­ades as a law­yer for Santa Clara County, then the U.S. Justice De­part­ment’s civil di­vi­sion, be­fore Cali­for­nia Gov. Jerry Brown asked her in 2011 to chair the Fair Polit­ic­al Prac­tices Com­mis­sion, the state’s ver­sion of the FEC. Des­pite her pro­gress­ive streak, she quickly ran afoul of good-gov­ern­ment types in this role. For in­stance, she ad­voc­ated up­dat­ing the state’s rules on gift-giv­ing to pub­lic of­fi­cials and reg­u­la­tions around con­flicts of in­terest. “The pur­pose of the agency—and I think the same is true at the FEC—is not to dis­suade people from run­ning for of­fice or be­ing elec­ted of­fi­cials or be­ing pub­lic of­fi­cials,” she told me. “I spent a lot of time re­vis­ing these rules.” She also ended the FP­PC’s prac­tice of post­ing on­line the iden­tit­ies of people be­ing in­vest­ig­ated by the com­mis­sion. Since by law the FP­PC must look in­to every le­git­im­ate com­plaint it re­ceives, the prac­tice was giv­ing people a quick and easy way to em­bar­rass polit­ic­al op­pon­ents. “It seemed un­just,” Ravel told me. But that reas­on­ing didn’t fly with Cali­for­nia Com­mon Cause and oth­er cam­paign-fin­ance re­formers, who cri­ti­cized her as soft. Dan Schnur, her pre­de­cessor at the com­mis­sion, said at the time that she “seems to have de­cided that the in­terests of the polit­ic­al at­tor­neys and lob­by­ists should take pri­or­ity over those of the voters.”

By far, the most con­ten­tious chapter of her time at the FP­PC began when $11 mil­lion in secret money flowed in­to Cali­for­nia in the run-up to Elec­tion Day 2012. The money went to in­flu­ence two fiercely con­tested bal­lot ini­ti­at­ives, one that pro­posed tem­por­ar­ily in­creas­ing in­come and sales taxes to boost edu­ca­tion fund­ing and an­oth­er that pro­posed curb­ing the abil­ity of labor uni­ons to raise money for polit­ic­al activ­it­ies. The donor for the $11 mil­lion was lis­ted as Amer­ic­ans for Re­spons­ible Lead­er­ship, an Ari­zona-based non­profit that had nev­er be­fore played in Cali­for­nia polit­ics; but the ori­gin­al source of the money was un­known.

Un­der Cali­for­nia law, polit­ic­al com­mit­tees par­ti­cip­at­ing in statewide con­tests are re­quired to dis­close the true source of their funds. Thus began a wind­ing battle in which Ravel and the FP­PC fought to get the names of the donors. It wasn’t un­til nearly a year after Elec­tion Day that Ravel con­cluded the in­vest­ig­a­tion, an­noun­cing that the money had been passed through a net­work of groups aligned with the bil­lion­aire in­dus­tri­al­ists Charles and Dav­id Koch. While the com­mis­sion’s set­tle­ment did not out­right name any hu­man donors, doc­u­ments re­leased as part of the deal iden­ti­fied bil­lion­aire phil­an­throp­ist Eli Broad, Las Ve­gas casino mogul Shel­don Ad­el­son, in­vest­ment ex­ec­ut­ive Charles Schwab, and mem­bers of the Fish­er fam­ily, which owns the Gap cloth­ing store, as all hav­ing donated.

Ravel’s work on the case raised her na­tion­al pro­file, and in June 2013, Pres­id­ent Obama nom­in­ated her to the FEC. The pro­spect of work­ing for the coun­try’s top polit­ic­al watch­dog held some ap­peal, but giv­en her sleuth­ing at the FP­PC and out­spoken po­s­i­tions on dis­clos­ure and reg­u­la­tion, she doubted she’d get through the Sen­ate con­firm­a­tion pro­cess. “I ac­tu­ally told Gov­ernor Brown: ‘Don’t worry, I’m nev­er go­ing to get con­firmed,’ ” she re­calls. Un­be­knownst to her, however, her nom­in­a­tion was paired with that of a Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee, a white-shoe law-firm part­ner named Lee Good­man. To­geth­er, she and Good­man were con­firmed un­an­im­ously.

But there were portents of what was to come. At her hear­ing be­fore the Sen­ate Com­mit­tee on Rules and Ad­min­is­tra­tion, Ravel re­spon­ded to a ques­tion from Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Roy Blunt of Mis­souri by say­ing that she be­lieved in re­straint when met­ing out pun­ish­ment to those who run afoul of the law, es­pe­cially small com­mit­tees or first-time can­did­ates who make hon­est, minor mis­takes. After the hear­ing, Ravel told me, she bumped in­to El­len Wein­traub, her fu­ture Demo­crat­ic col­league on the FEC. “You’re go­ing to re­gret something you said at the hear­ing,” Ravel re­calls Wein­traub telling her.

“I said, ‘What was that?’ ”

“She said, ‘You’re go­ing to re­gret [say­ing] you don’t be­lieve in go­ing after small things, be­cause that’s all we do.’ ” What Wein­traub meant (as she later told me her­self) was that at today’s di­vided FEC, tack­ling big, im­port­ant mat­ters wasn’t in the cards.

Phrases that get tossed out to describe the FEC include “toothless,” “the poster child for a broken Washington,” and “worse than dysfunctional.” 

NON­ETHE­LESS, RAVEL STAR­TED at the com­mis­sion in Oc­to­ber 2013 with high hopes. In their con­firm­a­tion hear­ings, both she and Lee Good­man had stressed the im­port­ance of co­oper­a­tion and ci­vil­ity, qual­it­ies sorely lack­ing at the FEC in re­cent years. In Cali­for­nia, Ravel’s de­cisions at the FP­PC had more of­ten than not earned the sup­port of the com­mis­sion’s Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers.

Her hopes were quickly dashed. “I was so naïve, ob­vi­ously,” she told me. “It’s such a dif­fer­ent world be­ing in Cali­for­nia versus here.” Ravel points to sev­er­al high-pro­file cases that came be­fore the FEC after her ar­rival as evid­ence of the com­mis­sion’s fail­ure to carry out its mis­sion. The most prom­in­ent one in­volved Cross­roads GPS, an an­onym­ously fun­ded group af­fil­i­ated with Karl Rove and one of the biggest out­side spend­ers in all of U.S. polit­ics. So­cial wel­fare non­profits like Cross­roads are ob­lig­ated to spend the ma­jor­ity of their funds on, well, so­cial wel­fare, yet the FEC’s law­yers found that Cross­roads’s nearly $21 mil­lion in polit­ic­al spend­ing in 2010 ad­ded up to more than half of its out­lays. Cross­roads’s stature in the post–Cit­izens United land­scape meant that the case was a closely watched one, and the leg­al and sym­bol­ic im­plic­a­tions were huge: How the FEC ac­ted would send a strong sig­nal to donors and con­sult­ants about what would and wouldn’t fly in this brave new world. The FEC’s gen­er­al coun­sel con­cluded that Cross­roads had likely broken the law and im­plored the com­mis­sion­ers to au­thor­ize an in­vest­ig­a­tion. Yet the com­mis­sion dead­locked.

In an­oth­er in­stance, the com­mis­sion split 3-3 on a case about wheth­er the pro-Clin­ton su­per PAC Ready for Hil­lary vi­ol­ated FEC re­quire­ments by fail­ing to dis­close a $137,000 pay­ment to rent an email list be­long­ing to Clin­ton’s Sen­ate cam­paign com­mit­tee. The FEC’s gen­er­al coun­sel pro­posed a “lim­ited in­vest­ig­a­tion” in­to Ready for Hil­lary, and the three Demo­crat­ic ap­pointees voted in fa­vor of it. But again the three Re­pub­lic­an ap­pointees voted against any ac­tion, clos­ing the case.

Ravel also came to learn that the leg­al sys­tem was, for the most part, not go­ing to break the FEC’s dead­locks. A prin­ciple es­tab­lished by the Su­preme Court known as “Chev­ron de­fer­ence” says judges should typ­ic­ally de­fer to the de­cisions of fed­er­al agen­cies. What shocked Ravel was that this prin­ciple ap­plied to the FEC’s 3-3 votes, even though they were ar­gu­ably less a de­cision than a fail­ure to de­cide. “It drives me crazy, be­cause it feels like the judges have ac­tu­ally ab­dic­ated their re­spons­ib­il­ity,” she says. “And so there is really no way to rem­edy these ab­uses in law.”

By the six-month mark, Ravel had de­cided that solely play­ing the in­side game at the FEC wasn’t work­ing. In April 2014, she lam­basted her Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues in a New York Times op-ed that began, “The Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion is fail­ing to en­force the na­tion’s cam­paign fin­ance laws. I’m in a po­s­i­tion to know. I’m the vice chair­wo­man of the com­mis­sion.”

Her de­cision to speak out did not go over well in­side the com­mis­sion. Ravel re­calls that her Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues cas­tig­ated her in a meet­ing right after the op-ed came out for “lack­ing col­legi­al­ity,” as she put it. Look­ing to shore up her re­la­tion­ships with the Re­pub­lic­ans, Ravel sub­sequently cut a deal with Good­man, then the com­mis­sion chair, and Re­pub­lic­an Car­oline Hunter. (The chair po­s­i­tion is a sym­bol­ic, largely power­less ro­tat­ing title at the FEC.) She would give the Re­pub­lic­ans a fourth vote on sev­er­al sought-after meas­ures of theirs, if they would agree to a hear­ing open to any mem­ber of the pub­lic con­cern­ing the Su­preme Court’s 2014 de­cision in Mc­Cutcheon v. FEC, a rul­ing that per­mit­ted wealthy donors to give vastly more money to PACs and polit­ic­al parties. Ravel saw the hear­ing as a way to draw at­ten­tion to the need for great­er trans­par­ency at a time when dis­clos­ure rules are in­creas­ingly fuzzy and open to eva­sion. And she was will­ing to horse-trade with Re­pub­lic­ans to get it.

For this and oth­er votes with the Re­pub­lic­ans, lib­er­al ad­voc­ates ex­cor­i­ated her. After Ravel gave the Re­pub­lic­ans a fourth vote on ex­pan­ded party-con­ven­tion fun­drais­ing, Fred Wer­theimer, the bushy-browed dean of the cam­paign-fin­ance-re­form com­munity, shot off an email to his al­lies in which he wrote: “Ann Ravel just sold us out … and can no longer be con­sidered a friend of re­form or an ad­voc­ate for our goals.” For Ravel, Wer­theimer’s email was evid­ence that she had man­aged to pro­voke the ire of all sides in the money-in-polit­ics de­bate. “I’m hated by every­body,” she told me.

As her pro­file on the com­mis­sion rose, Ravel be­came ac­quain­ted with the nas­ti­er side of today’s polit­ic­al de­bate. In Oc­to­ber 2014, after the FEC dead­locked on a vote over wheth­er to in­vest­ig­ate a group that ran a series of on­line-only ads at­tack­ing Pres­id­ent Obama and Demo­crat­ic Sen. Sher­rod Brown of Ohio, Ravel re­leased a state­ment in which she called on the FEC to re­vis­it its 2006 ex­emp­tion for on­line cam­paign-style activ­ity. (The ex­emp­tion left un­reg­u­lated ba­sic­ally all on­line politick­ing—blog­ging, video-mak­ing, email­ing, web­site-host­ing—ex­cept for paid polit­ic­al ad­vert­ising.) She pledged to bring to­geth­er “tech­no­lo­gists, so­cial en­tre­pren­eurs, policy wonks, politicos, and act­iv­ists” to think about how the com­mis­sion’s rules could be up­dated to re­flect the grow­ing amount of polit­ic­al ad­vocacy on­line. “A re-ex­am­in­a­tion of the Com­mis­sion’s ap­proach to the In­ter­net and oth­er emer­ging tech­no­lo­gies is long over­due,” she wrote.

Ravel told me that she saw her state­ment as “mod­er­ate and some­what in­noc­u­ous,” but it sparked an out­cry. Good­man con­demned Ravel’s com­ments on Fox News, say­ing they raised the “specter of a gov­ern­ment re­view board cull­ing the In­ter­net daily.” Con­ser­vat­ives and liber­tari­ans ac­cused her of try­ing to cen­sor the In­ter­net. She was called a “dis­gust­ing fas­cist Nazi” and a “to­tal­it­ari­an thug.” One couple wrote to Ravel, who is Jew­ish, at her pub­lic email ad­dress: “Pravda would be proud of you, or Joseph Goebbels.” An­oth­er per­son wrote her: “Die, fas­cist, die!”

The ex­tent of the an­im­os­ity and vit­ri­ol, while not sur­pris­ing to any­one who has spent time in the com­ments sec­tion of a news story, startled Ravel. She says it also made her re­double her ef­forts to draw more at­ten­tion to the FEC’s dys­func­tion, es­pe­cially after she was elec­ted chair at the end of 2014. Now Chair­wo­man Ravel, she took aim at her own em­ploy­er in The Wash­ing­ton Post and The New York Times. “People think the FEC is dys­func­tion­al,” she told the Times. “It’s worse than dys­func­tion­al.”

In Feb­ru­ary, she held her open hear­ing—the one she’d bar­gained with the Re­pub­lic­ans for. It proved to be a bit of a spec­tacle: The Post called it “far­cic­al”; Slate titled its story “Open Mic Dis­aster”; at one point, a Ron Paul in­tern took the mic and quoted Bib­lic­al verse de­clar­ing that “love of money is the root of all evil.” But Ravel says she was sat­is­fied that the hear­ing gave people who don’t usu­ally turn out for FEC meet­ings a chance to speak. “Frankly, I think that’s how it should be in every one of our hear­ings,” she told me. “One of the things that troubles me about the com­mis­sion is we’re so in­su­lar that we don’t get any in­put from the pub­lic about mat­ters im­port­ant to the pub­lic.”

Ravel’s Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues dis­miss her cri­ti­cisms as un­foun­ded. In a May 2015 op-ed in Politico, Good­man touted the num­ber of bi­par­tis­an votes—93 per­cent of all votes, he said—that oc­curred in 2014, un­der his watch as chair­man. He de­scribed the FEC as “re­mark­ably func­tion­al for a bi­par­tis­an com­mis­sion” and cri­ti­cized Ravel’s con­front­a­tion­al ap­proach. “Hurl­ing tired, ca­ri­ca­tured broad­sides at my Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues and me, rather than ac­know­ledging our hon­estly held leg­al and philo­soph­ic­al com­mit­ment to First Amend­ment val­ues, de­bases the pub­lic de­bate and un­ne­ces­sar­ily po­lar­izes the agency,” he wrote.

I often wake up and think, ‘What did I get myself into?’ 
Ann Ravel

Some of the cri­ti­cism comes from her own side. Marc Eli­as, the Demo­crat­ic elec­tion law­yer, doesn’t en­tirely dis­agree with Ravel’s broad­er cri­tique that the FEC is grid­locked on ma­jor is­sues. But he does fault her for over­look­ing the fact that the com­mis­sion still car­ries out the “ba­sic block­ing and tack­ling” of cam­paign-fin­ance law—ex­plain­ing reg­u­la­tions to a first-time can­did­ate for of­fice, help­ing a loc­al county party fill out its pa­per­work, and so on. “It’s not like I have on rose-colored glasses,” Eli­as told me. “I think that the agency should be resolv­ing and giv­ing clear guid­ance on all as­pects of the law. But I don’t think it’s fair to say the agency doesn’t per­form any valu­able func­tion.”

I asked Ravel dir­ectly about Good­man’s re­but­tal of her cri­ti­cisms. She quibbled with his math about the com­mis­sion’s vot­ing re­cord. (When her of­fice crunched the 2014 stat­ist­ics, the num­ber of dead­locked votes was high­er, at 22 per­cent.) But the crux of her cri­ti­cism was that, while the FEC does settle plenty of minor cases, it’s both far too slow and of­ten en­tirely un­able to act on the most con­sequen­tial is­sues. “It’s not like we dead­lock on everything,” she told me. “But we dead­lock on any­thing that is clearly a sig­ni­fic­ant mat­ter that is go­ing to be re­lat­ing to the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, such as co­ordin­a­tion, or wheth­er the com­mu­nic­a­tions are for polit­ic­al pur­poses, there­fore mak­ing the largest out­side spend­ers polit­ic­al com­mit­tees, or im­port­ant dis­clos­ure cases.”

Fel­low Demo­crat­ic com­mis­sion­er El­len Wein­traub echoed Ravel’s point about the dead­locks. “Look­ing at the num­bers really un­der­states the sever­ity of the prob­lem,” she told me. She ad­ded that she had tried to ne­go­ti­ate a deal with her fel­low com­mis­sion­ers to clear the FEC’s back­log, in which the com­mis­sion would be forced to vote on any open case once it reached the six-month mark. That pro­pos­al dead­locked 3-3.

I asked Wein­traub what she thought about Ravel bash­ing the FEC in the pages of The New York Times. “I un­der­stand the frus­tra­tion, I really do,” she told me. “But I think my job is to come in every­day and try to get something done around here.”

How would Ravel fix the agency? Is blow­ing the thing up and start­ing over with a new mod­el—as sug­ges­ted by some on the left—the best way? She told me she doesn’t think the FEC’s design is the prob­lem. “I don’t ob­ject to a 3-3 com­pos­i­tion to en­sure there are checks on a com­mis­sion that has the abil­ity to em­bar­rass you and af­fect your polit­ic­al ca­reer,” she says. “It’s totally un­der­stand­able why Con­gress did that.” One thing that could be done, she sug­gests, is for Pres­id­ent Obama to cre­ate a bi­par­tis­an blue-rib­bon pan­el of im­pec­cably cre­den­tialed people—who in turn would se­lect com­mis­sion­ers with sim­il­arly im­pec­cable cre­den­tials. Those com­mis­sion­ers could be re­tired gen­er­als or judges, she says, but they should all “be­lieve in the mis­sion of the agency and be­lieve in law as ap­plic­able.”

Right now, five of the FEC’s six com­mis­sion­ers are serving past their ex­pir­a­tion date—that is, their form­al terms have ended, and the White House and Con­gress just haven’t ac­ted to re­place them. Ravel is the only com­mis­sion­er still on an act­ive term. She told me that if such a pan­el came along and re­com­men­ded not five but six new com­mis­sion­ers, she’d hap­pily step down and go back to Cali­for­nia. (In­deed, though her term does not ex­pire un­til 2017, she told me she doesn’t plan to stick around if she doesn’t feel like she’s mak­ing head­way.)

In real­ity, of course, the blue-rib­bon pan­el she pro­poses is un­likely to hap­pen. Ab­sent a Wa­ter­gate-level out­rage, things are only likely to grow more dys­func­tion­al at the FEC—and more an­arch­ic in the world of cam­paign fin­ance. “The only way it’s really go­ing to get changed is if there is suf­fi­cient pub­lic out­cry, and I think it would re­quire a massive scan­dal for that to hap­pen,” says An­thony Her­man, the former FEC gen­er­al coun­sel. “I don’t think New York Times ed­it­or­i­als are go­ing to do the trick.”

THE TEN­SIONS AT the top of the FEC have ap­par­ently trickled down throughout the en­tire agency. The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment re­cently re­leased the res­ults of a gov­ern­ment-wide sur­vey of fed­er­al em­ploy­ees’ sat­is­fac­tion levels with their jobs. Of 163 staffers who re­spon­ded to the sur­vey, only 32 per­cent said that they were sat­is­fied with the FEC’s work; even few­er, 30 per­cent, said they’d re­com­mend work­ing at the com­mis­sion to oth­er people. Over­all, re­spond­ents gave the agency a woe­ful 43 out of 100 “glob­al sat­is­fac­tion” score—the third-worst among all small agen­cies across the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. The Cen­ter for Pub­lic In­teg­rity, an­onym­ously cit­ing three rank-and-file FEC staffers, de­scribed the at­mo­sphere in­side the com­mis­sion as “bad and get­ting worse.”

Two days after the sur­vey’s re­lease, right be­fore lunch­time, Ravel and her staff set out two tables of tor­tilla chips, salsa, Mex­ic­an wed­ding cook­ies, and so­das, and strung up col­or­ful dec­or­a­tions in the FEC’s first-floor pub­lic-re­cords room, a bleak space lined with stacks of old press re­leases, pa­per cam­paign data­bases, and scores of mi­cro­film racks next to mi­cro­film read­ers. As a way to boost mor­ale, Ravel had paid out of pock­et for a maria­chi band, Los Gal­los Negros, to per­form for the staff, and she in­vited every­one in the build­ing (and me) to at­tend.

Em­ploy­ees trickled in, pick­ing at the chips and sip­ping Diet Coke. On sev­er­al oc­ca­sions, Ravel and a few staff mem­bers danced to­geth­er to the mariachis’ up-tempo num­bers. All throughout, vari­ous em­ploy­ees kept ap­proach­ing Ravel and thank­ing her for or­gan­iz­ing the mix­er. I could read on the faces of the staff a look of happy be­wil­der­ment at the sight of the mariachis pluck­ing a gui­tar­rón and squeez­ing an ac­cor­di­on un­der a framed wall poster about “Cam­paign Mu­sic” from Amer­ic­an elec­tions of yore.

I watched sev­er­al of Ravel’s fel­low com­mis­sion­ers drift through, in­clud­ing Steven Walth­er and El­len Wein­traub. Good­man showed up near the end and hung around for a while. Ravel and Wein­traub made no at­tempt to chat with their Re­pub­lic­an col­league, nor did Good­man try. The whole scene re­minded me of high school, rival cliques avoid­ing each oth­er in the cafet­er­ia or the hall­ways between classes.

Ravel led much of the dan­cing at the party. Catch­ing her breath at one point, she walked past me and said, “This is the most fun I’ve had since I got here.”


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