The primary responsibilities of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) are to ensure full disclosure of campaign money and fair enforcement of election law, former chair Ann M. Ravel said Monday, before declaring: "Citizens deserve to know it does neither."
In an op-ed published at the New York Times, Ravel blamed the dysfunction on "a controlling bloc of three Republican commissioners who are ideologically opposed to the FEC's purpose [that] regularly ignores violations or drastically reduces penalties."
"The resulting paralysis," she wrote, "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."
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.
And even when the head of Carolina Rising, a supposed "social welfare" nonprofit organization, appeared on television boasting about the millions his organization spent backing a winning Senate candidate, which constituted 97 percent of the group's total spending that year, the three blocked any investigation into whether this violated the clear law that political committees must register and disclose their political spending.
So what we are left with is an agency mandated to ensure transparency and disclosure that is actually working to keep the public in the dark.
Ravel, who was appointed to the commission in 2013 and served as its chair in 2015, appears to have had enough. In a letter she posted publicly at Medium, Ravel told President Donald Trump on Sunday that she will resign effective March 1.
Noting Trump's own past statements on the campaign finance system, as well as the American public's hunger to get big money out of politics, Ravel urged the president to "prioritize campaign finance reform to remedy the significant problems identified during the last election cycle."
"Disclosure laws need to be strengthened; the mistaken jurisprudence of Citizens United reexamined; public financing of candidates ought to be expanded to reduce reliance on the wealthy; and commissioners who will carry out the mandates of the law should be appointed to the expired terms of the FEC," she wrote. The New York Times reports that due to "the difficulty in agreeing on replacements," all the FEC's current members are serving well beyond their terms.
Now, according to the Times, Ravel's "departure will probably set off an intense political fight over how a new commissioner should be picked. By tradition, Senate Democrats would be allowed to select the replacement, but, by law, the choice belongs to the president, and Mr. Trump has shown little interest in Washington customs."
The newspaper continued:
Mr. Trump can pick a nominee himself so long as he does not choose a registered Republican, said Richard L. Hasen, an election law scholar at the University of California, Irvine. The panel, which already has three Republicans, cannot have more than three members from any political party. Mr. Hasen said he would not be surprised if Mr. Trump made the pick himself, especially because his White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, was an election commissioner himself and has pushed fiercely for deregulating campaign finance.
"It would be transformative," Mr. Hasen said, if the president nominated someone more aligned with the panel's Republican members to push for even further deregulation.
Ravel also published a report on her way out the door, entitled Dysfunction and Deadlock: The Enforcement Crisis at the Federal Election Commission Reveals the Unlikelihood of Draining the Swamp (pdf). It outlines many of the same problems she raises in her op-ed and resignation letter, and states that "these trends could accelerate in 2017."
According to the Center for Public Integrity, Ravel's "immediate plans include teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, and joining the boards of “several” nonprofit organizations, two of which primarily advocate for campaign finance reforms."
She told the outlet: "Don't worry. I'm not going away."