The agency instructed to treat corporations as people – at least when it comes to their right to spend money on political speech – isn’t sure if its own commissioners are. During a fraught exchange at Thursday’s Federal Election Commission monthly meeting, a Republican commissioner said none of the six panel members should be counted as a “person” when it comes to petitioning their own agency. This led to a strange back and forth between Matthew Petersen, a Republican, and Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, over her personhood. “First of all, let me say I cannot believe that you are actually going to take the position that I am not a person…a corporation is a person, but I’m not a person?” Weintraub fired back. “That’s how bad it has gotten. My colleagues will not admit that I am a person. That’s really striking.”
Two Democratic members of the Federal Election Commission, who say they are frustrated by the agency’s failure to rein in campaign-finance abuses ahead of the 2016 presidential race, are making what amounts to a drastic move Monday in the staid world of federal election law. Commissioners Ann Ravel, who is the agency’s chairwoman, and Ellen Weintraub are filing a formal petition, urging their own agency to write rules to clamp down on unfettered political spending and unmask the anonymous money flooding U.S. elections.
Federal Election Commission Chairwoman Ann Ravel, an outspoken advocate of tougher campaign finance laws who has been criticized as too partisan by some Republicans, says she’s open to a GOP idea of increasing campaign contribution limits as a way to stem the flow of money to super PACs and other outside groups. “I wouldn’t object to the raising of contribution limits,” the Democratic appointee told POLITICO in an interview. “But I wouldn’t want to totally eliminate contribution limits because what would worry me about that is that the candidates would then become like the super PACs, and it would drown out small donors.”
Over the weekend, the New York Times published a sobering interview with the head of the Federal Election Commission, who confirmed that she had largely given up on the agency playing a meaningful role in restraining fundraising and spending abuses in the 2016 campaign. The commissioners are deadlocked, FEC chair Ann Ravel said, because Republican members of the commission think the FEC should exercise less robust oversight, meaning the agency has become “worse than dysfunctional” at a time when outside money is poised to play an even larger role than it did in the last two cycles.
Editorials: Open Mic Disaster: The FEC held a hearing that revealed almost everything that’s wrong with American democracy. | Alec McGillis/Slate
Woe, to be the Federal Election Commission in the age of the Koch brothers. The agency charged with safeguarding the integrity of American democracy has, in recent years, been hit again and again by other branches of the federal government further flooding the political system with money from a small coterie of ultrawealthy donors. There was the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling in 2010, which made it possible for corporations, unions, and nonprofit groups to spend directly on elections. There was the McCutcheon v. FEC ruling last year, which, while keeping in place caps on how much an individual could give directly to a candidate or political committee, eliminated the aggregate limits on how much he could give combined. And just two months ago, Congress slipped into the big must-pass spending bill a further expansion of the sums a wealthy donor could give to party committees. The FEC hasn’t exactly helped matters, either. In the final years of George W. Bush’s administration, in 2007, it issued a rule that greatly weakened the requirements for nonprofit groups airing political “issue ads” to disclose their donors. More recently, the agency, despite the best efforts of Chairwoman Ann Ravel, a Democrat, has been conspicuously weak in enforcing its remaining rules on donor disclosure, laundered campaign contributions, and improper coordination between outside groups and candidates—the result of a worse-than-ever partisan deadlock between its three Democratic appointees and its three Republican ones, who have repeatedly resisted serious enforcement actions. All in all, the agency is looking about as effective at holding the line as a middle-school hall monitor at a Roman bacchanal.
Critics of campaign finance enforcement, or the lack of it, continue to be infuriated by the FEC’s record of deadlocks in major cases, and they are further troubled by the obstacles to judicial review. When complainants stymied by deadlock appeal to the courts, they must still overcome the “deference” generally granted to the agency’s expertise, except where the law is clear or the agency is acting arbitrarily. In these cases, the courts review the agency’s action by examining the stated position of the Commissioners voting against enforcement. This is the so-called “controlling group” of Commissioners—the ones whose refusal to authorize enforcement controlled the outcome. Two FEC Commissioners, Ann Ravel and Ellen Weintraub, now argue that this is all wrong, and have called for the courts to reconsider the process by which deadlock decisions are reviewed. They want an end to the “controlling group” analysis; the courts, the Commissioners contend, should review deadlocks on a de novo basis. So if the FEC dismisses a complaint because the Commissioners cannot agree on what sort of an organization constitutes a regulated “political committee,” the court would take it from there—disregarding the Commissioners’ disagreement and proceeding to judge the issue from scratch.
National: Few Tricks, Some Treats as Two New FEC Commissioners Start Work on Halloween | In the Arena
For the first time since January, the Federal Election Commission held a meeting at which a majority of six Commissioners agreed on an advisory opinion. At its public meeting today, the Commission welcomed Lee Goodman and Ann Ravel to its ranks. Commissioner Goodman came from a private practice in which he represented Republican candidates and officeholders, among other clients. As the chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, Commissioner Ravel made waves last week with the announcement of a million-dollar settlement with two conservative nonprofits that failed to disclose the sources of funds spent on state ballot initiative campaigns. In opening statements, the two new Commissioners found common ground on two subjects: they both expressed appreciation of the FEC’s staff, and a desire to achieve consensus on issues facing the agency. Commissioner Goodman added, though, that the FEC is a “complicated agency” where First Amendment and regulatory concerns must be carefully balanced.
A secretive nonprofit group with ties to the billionaire conservative businessmen Charles and David Koch admitted to improperly failing to disclose more than $15 million in contributions it funneled into state referendum battles in California, state officials there announced Thursday. The group, the Arizona-based Center to Protect Patient Rights, is one of the largest political nonprofits in the country, serving as a conduit for tens of millions of dollars in political spending, much of it raised by the Kochs and their political operation and spent by other nonprofits active in the 2010 and 2012 elections. The settlement, announced by Attorney General Kamala D. Harris of California and the Fair Political Practices Commission, which enforce California’s campaign finance laws, includes one of the largest penalties ever assessed on a political group for failing to disclose donations. The center and another Arizona group involved in the transactions, Americans for Responsible Leadership, will pay a $1 million fine, while two California groups must turn over $15 million in contributions they received.
The Senate on Monday confirmed President Barack Obama’s two nominees to the Federal Election Commission, giving the panel its first new members since the George W. Bush administration. Democrat Ann Ravel and Republican Lee Goodman were approved by unanimous consent in a brief voice vote on the Senate floor. The commission — a six-member panel that regulates political spending on campaigns and elections — has been operating with just five commissioners since the spring when chairwoman Cynthia Bauerly departed for the private sector. Last week, Bauerly’s successor as chair Donald McGahn also left the commission to return to practicing law at Patton Boggs.
Under new rules approved Thursday, the state hopes to help Californians determine whether political material they read online is a writer’s own opinion or propaganda paid for by a campaign. Campaigns will now have to report when they pay people to post praise or criticism of candidates and ballot measures on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other websites. “The public is entitled to know who is paying for campaigns and campaign opinions,” so voters can better evaluate what they see on blogs and elsewhere online, said Ann Ravel, who chairs the California Fair Political Practices Commission. Open-government groups endorsed the new rules, which govern “favorable or unfavorable” content — although much of the time that information may come weeks or even months after publication. Bloggers and some others say the rules infringe on free speech. The regulations require disclosure by campaigns that pay someone $500 or more to post positive or negative content on Internet sites not run by the campaigns. In periodic spending reports required by the state, the campaigns would have to identify who was paid, how much and to which website or URL the posting was made.