This story was co-published with Al Jazeera America.
The Federal Election Commission, a government agency tasked with policing what’s expected to be the nation’s most expensive election ever, will drag itself into the new year perhaps more internally injured than at any point in its 40-year history.
It will do so under the leadership of Matthew Petersen, a Republican who his five commission colleagues, in a perfunctory vote, today appointed chairman for 2016. The job switches annually between Republicans and Democrats.
But Petersen, a soft-spoken and professorial attorney by trade, says his tenure at the FEC’s helm will prove decidedly different than that of Democrat Ann Ravel, the current chairwoman who’s used her office’s meager power — a bully pulpit, mainly — to its maximum.
“I’ve learned to take a more low-profile approach,” he told the Center for Public Integrity in an interview earlier this month. “I don’t feel any need to have my face out there any more than it is.”
Low profile is something Ravel is not.
Ravel has toured the country touting what she considers the virtues of remaking the FEC into an aggressive watchdog it’s not.
And when those Republicans balked at writing stricter rules governing certain political activities, Ravel joined with fellow Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub in an unprecedented attempt to force them to act — petitioning her own agency not as appointed government officials, but as private citizens.
Republican Commissioners Caroline Hunter and Lee Goodman, who have each chaired the FEC themselves, say to varying degrees that Ravel is more concerned with cultivating her reformist public image than protecting political actors’ rights or tending to nuts-and-bolts agency functions.
Regardless of who’s right, such personal and ideological rifts have meant the commissioners have largely been unwilling to tackle the nation’s thorniest election law issues this year, such as the degree to which super PACs may work with the political candidates they support and the occasions when politically active nonprofits may keep their donors secret.
Even cases bordering on the ridiculous fall flat: When FEC staffers informed a pro-Carly Fiorina super PAC that using a candidate’s name within its own is illegal the group, which had christened itself “Carly for America,” simply morphed into “Conservative, Authentic, Responsive Leadership for You and for America” — or, “CARLY for America.”
The FEC has taken no material action against the pro-Fiorina group since.
Obscure body parts are, however, a hot commission topic: In mid-November, Ravel appeared on a The Daily Show segment during which comedian Jordan Klepper asked her whether the FEC was more or less useless than men’s nipples.
Her response: “I would say that the FEC and men’s nipples are probably comparable.”
That didn’t sit well with her Republican counterparts.
“I just can’t stress enough how inappropriate I think that is … a new low,” Hunter said during an extended critique of Ravel’s leadership this year while seated a few feet away from her at the commission’s public meeting on Nov. 17.
Ravel didn’t apologize. Far from it, she doubled down.
“I have no regrets about anything that I have said,” she told Hunter. “We owe it to the American public to be doing our job.”
Enter Petersen’s office in downtown Washington, D.C., and one will be greeted with an impressive collection of Los Angeles Dodgers memorabilia, from photographs to bobblehead dolls.
A Southern California native with a seemingly eidetic memory for sports, Petersen says he has no expectations the FEC will hit many, if any, legal home runs under his chairmanship.
Singles are more like it.
“I don’t come into 2016 with any grand vision, a five-point plan. I have a fairly realistic notion of what’s going to happen and what’s not,” Petersen recently told the Center for Public Integrity, noting that the FEC can’t play Congress and write its own election laws. “Whenever compromise on a topic is possible, I want to find it.”
Topping Petersen’s agenda-of-the-possible is completing an overhaul of the agency’s public-facing website, FEC.gov, which has plodded along this decade with the form and function of something from the Internet’s Ask Jeeves age — much to the chagrin of people attempting to access politicos’ financial information or hunt down agency rulings.
Both Democratic and Republican commissioners agree that a new website is painfully overdue. A “beta” version of a new and improved site went live in October. Through last week, the beta site had logged more than 58,000 page views, and the FEC had received 93 comments on how to further improve it, said Alec Palmer, the agency’s staff and information technology director.
Petersen’s other to-do items include loosening regulations on state and local political parties that govern how they may fundraise, register voters and advocate for candidates — one of fellow Republican Goodman’s pet issues.
Petersen also wants to modernize the agency regulations pertaining to technology — references to telegraphs, typewriters and such still persist and political committees can’t officially communicate with agency by email. He also wants to provide greater protections to candidates whose campaigns have fallen victim to embezzlement.
Furthermore, he expects the agency to take up a package of proposed reforms floated by a bipartisan group of election law practitioners, which include revising forms and streamlining various campaign finance reporting requirements.
“Not the sexiest items,” Petersen conceded, “but important.”
Petersen will have a partner of sorts in Steve Walther, the FEC’s new vice chairman — a Democratic appointee who identifies as an independent.
Like Petersen, Walther typically avoids histrionics. Walther also tends to be the most Socratic of the FEC’s six commissioners, preferring detailed lines of inquiry over speeches and soliloquies.
Make no mistake: Walther’s track record during his 10 years at the FEC trends decidedly liberal whereas Petersen is a solid conservative.
Nevertheless, Walther told the Center for Public Integrity: “I plan to work very collegially with Matt, and I consider him to be a gentleman’s gentleman.”
Even if the FEC in 2016 is kinder and gentler, campaign finance reform activists worry it will be no more functional — and possibly less.
Unlike most governmental commissions, the FEC features an even number of commissioners: three Democratic appointees, three Republicans.
Majority still rules at the FEC. But good luck finding a 4-2 or 5-1 majority on matters of consequence — particularly if the consequences of agency action land in the laps of presidential candidates, super PACs or “dark money” nonprofits that influence elections without revealing who funds them.
On such matters, 3-3 deadlocks are the norm.
With this backdrop, left-leaning reformers’ predictions for the FEC’s role in electoral politics next year generally fall somewhere between dire and apocalyptic.
“The agency is not going to be a bit player, it’s going to be a zero player,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of reform group Democracy 21.
“It’s like a high school party, and the parents not just walked away from the house, but said to the teenagers, ‘Have the biggest party you can!’” said Nick Penniman, executive director for bipartisan group Issue One.
“Candidates, super PACs and others have run roughshod over our campaign finance laws since the beginning of the 2016 cycle,” said Paul S. Ryan, deputy executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, which is led by former Republican FEC Chairman Trevor Potter. “They’ll undoubtedly continue to do so through the general election, confident that the FEC won’t hold them accountable for their lawbreaking.”
Such statements could have just as well been made by Ravel, who, in an interview earlier this month, said her Republican colleagues simply weren’t willing to do anything more than “vote as a bloc on issues of significance.” (Without at least one Republican, Democrats can’t advance much of anything, and vice versa.)
Ravel pointed to a compromise she and her Republican counterparts struck just after she joined the commission in late 2013.
In exchange for Ravel’s support on rewriting agency rules to align with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, Republicans agreed to conduct an open, public hearing on election law matters — something the agency simply hadn’t done in recent years.
Republicans expected something academic, focused on the Supreme Court’s recent McCutcheon v. FEC decision.
But when the February affair turned into a lengthy free-for-all and platform for reformists to air grievances, Republicans were steamed. Hunter described the hearing as “not only not productive, but counterproductive.”
Ravel, however, reveled in it, particularly since much of the discourse centered around her personal priority of unveiling the true nature of secret money being used in political elections. Afterward, a Republican commissioner was “threatening me and yelling at me,” saying, “This is going to be a very long year for me,” Ravel said.
She declined to identify the commissioner.
“It made it quite clear that there was never going to be any reciprocal, amicable attempts to find common ground,” Ravel continued. “So I decided to put my energies elsewhere, there’s no question. In a lot of ways, I accomplished what I wanted.”
Added Weintraub, her Democratic colleague: “We are in sync with the American people” when it comes to our views on money in politics.
For Hunter, the public — even the most liberal campaign finance reform advocates — shouldn’t view Ravel as some kind of hero.
“She’s given them, in a sense, false hope, suggesting ideas that are unrealistic, even unconstitutional,” Hunter said.
And much as Ravel likes to say Republicans are the problem, Hunter argues it’s Ravel who wasn’t willing to work with them.
Similarly, Goodman said that Ravel, who led the agency’s regulations committee, a forum for hashing out meat-and-potatoes election law matters, only conducted two meetings all year. Ravel said there wasn’t much point since Republicans only wanted to take their own counsel, but Goodman argues that its representative of “a year of lost opportunities for the commission.”
Now that Petersen is in charge, how will things change?
“I hope [the commission] goes back to regular order, so to speak,” Hunter said.
One trend that’s becoming the norm is the declining number of political groups or other organizations seeking the FEC’s formal advice on election law matters.
At only 12 this year, this number represents an historical low after slipping for several years. It’s an indication, Ravel says, that fewer and fewer political actors care about what the FEC says, or don’t want the bother or expense of dealing with a commission that may very well deadlock on their case.
All the while, the FEC has gone 29 months without duly appointing a general counsel to lead its legal operations. In the meantime, the United States has legalized marriage for same-sex couples, allowed women to serve in military combat and explored Pluto, more than 3.1 billion miles from Earth.
In August, commissioners finally appointed Daniel Petalas, the FEC’s associate general counsel for enforcement, as acting general counsel for four months. They’ve since extended Petalas’ tour of duty while commissioners continue searching for a permanent replacement for Tony Herman, who resigned on July 5, 2013.
Part of the problem, Petersen says, is Congress won’t heed the FEC’s standing request to boost the general counsel’s salary range — something the FEC itself can’t do. As a result, the agency finds itself in a peculiar situation where a young attorney working as a commissioner’s assistant could theoretically earn a higher salary than the agency’s top lawyer.
Furthermore, the FEC continues to grapple with dozens of unresolved enforcement cases, some of which are now years old.
If the FEC can’t change itself, who will?
There are 26 bills and resolutions pending in Congress that mention the FEC by name in some fashion.
Some aim to strengthen political disclosure laws. Others call for limiting the power of super PACs, or reforming the FEC, or protecting politically active nonprofit groups from government overreach. Almost all of them languish in a U.S. House or U.S. Senate committee. None have become law.
Prospects for an FEC overhaul in particular are low, but there is a “growing recognition in the public that the FEC is broken,” said Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., an outspoken campaign reform advocate.
“Unfortunately, there are some in Congress — notably, [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell — who are perfectly content with the status quo,” he said.
Representatives for McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, could not be reached for comment.
So don’t expect Congress to step up, even as the FEC’s six commissioners today briefly put aside their differences for a moment to send lawmakers a legislative wish list, as they do each December. Each year, a grinchy Congress all but ignores it.
The new legislative agenda passed today by the FEC includes calls for the electronic filing of U.S. Senate campaign finance reports, a fix to the general counsel salary issue and a prohibition on political operatives and politicians from pocketing the cash raise by any kind of political committee — not just candidate’s official campaign committees, as is the case now.
President Barack Obama, in a forum no less than his 2015 State of the Union Address, called for “better politics” where “we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter.”
But Obama has himself not been swift to act, either.
The president has been “unwilling to do the bare minimum,” said Kurt Walters, campaign manager for Rootstrikers, which this month released a 34-page report lambasting Obama’s handling of political money issues.
One immediate action Obama could take is replacing five of the six commissioners — Ravel is the exception — whose terms have expired. They continue to serve regardless, as the law allows.
Tradition holds that the White House and Republican leaders in the Senate work deals to nominate FEC commissioners before they face Senate confirmation hearings. But nothing’s stopping Obama from going a different route — say, creating a bipartisan nominating commission — to identify suitable FEC commission prospects.
The White House said in a statement Thursday that there are “no personnel announcements at this time.” It did not respond to questions about activists criticisms of Obama.
Ravel, when asked if Obama had contacted her during her time leading the FEC, shook her head.
“No. I’ve had almost no contact with the White House,” she said.
But she quickly added that Obama’s lack of communication isn’t necessarily a bad thing, at least for her.
“No one there has told me that they are concerned about my behavior,” she said, smiling.
Washington, D.C., is not, and has never been, a home for Ravel. Beyond her work travels, she regularly commutes cross-country to her family California. She’s only seen her infant granddaughter twice this year.
An obvious question, then, is: Is she done?
When asked by the Center for Public Integrity, Ravel didn’t pause in declaring that no, she’s not about to quit despite rumors that her resignation is imminent now that her leadership term is over.
Might she stay at the FEC through the 2016 election and beyond? “Yes, it’s possible,” Ravel said, adding that she’ll continue to serve so long as she believes she can accomplish some of her goals.
Her GOP counterparts, likewise, are intending to stick it out. Petersen, Hunter and Goodman each said that they, too — absent White House intervention — have no plans to leave before 2016 is out.
And despite a survey of government employees that pegged the FEC’s staff as one of the most disgruntled among all small government agencies, Petersen says he’s optimistic about improving staff morale — even morale among the agency’s commissioners.
“I have no personal animus for any of them,” Petersen said of his colleagues. “I don’t feel like this is a miserable place to be.”
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