First published in the Sacramento Bee. By the Editorial Board.
No one can accuse Ann Ravel of fading quietly from her job as one of six members of the Federal Election Commission. That’s not her style, to her credit.
Barack Obama placed Ravel on the commission in 2013, after she made waves as Gov. Jerry Brown’s appointed chairwoman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
In both jobs, Ravel, whose final day on the FEC is Wednesday, embraced the concept that campaign finance law is intended to help show voters the impact of money on democracy.
In the landmark 2010 Citizens United decision and in cases before and since, the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts have made clear that spending money on politics is protected by the First Amendment, and that restrictions on campaign spending and contributions are legally suspect. But recognizing the importance of an informed electorate, the Supreme Court has affirmed requirements that campaign contributions be disclosed. That’s Ravel’s position, too, and ours.
In California, Ravel oversaw an investigation into campaign money laundering by secretive entities related to billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch’s network in 2012. That led to a $1 million fine. In Washington, D.C., where partisanship is paralyzing the FEC, her successes were less dramatic.
But she can claim credit for bringing that dysfunction to the public’s attention through frequent speaking engagements and writings, including a parting 24-page report about the commission. It’s not easy to make campaign finance law humorous. But Ravel appeared on a “Daily Show” segment that lampooned the commission.
The FEC is made up of three Republicans and three Democrats. Under its rules, a tied vote means the commission takes no action. On most significant issues, the commission, born out of the Watergate scandals, deadlocks. And so the watchdog rarely barks or bites these days.
In her parting report, Ravel pointed out that in 2006, when George W. Bush was president, the commission imposed $5.5 million in civil penalties. In 2016, penalties fell to $595,425.
In a case out of Los Angeles, the three Republican appointees concluded that the federal law banning foreign donations to domestic campaigns did not apply to a Luxembourg-based internet porn conglomerate that spent $343,000 to oppose a local ballot measure to require that adult film actors use condoms.
California regulators, relying on state law, did intervene by imposing a $61,500 fine. But absent a state law – and not all states have detailed campaign finance regulations – the FEC indecision would open the way for foreign players to get involved in all manner of local races.
Throughout her tenure, Republicans took umbrage at Ravel’s blunt talk. This week, under a headline, “Ann Ravel’s loud departure,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board accused her of theatrics and opined that her tenure on the commission was “one long harangue.” Oh, for the time when conservatives embraced disclosure.
Too often, partisanship clouds wise policy, as Ravel has made clear during her time in Washington. As she departs, we urge that other public officials act and speak out loudly and even theatrically on the side of an informed electorate.