FEC Commissioner Ravel came to town with every intention to make change and left in a state of disillusionment. She aspired to build fences and ran into a wall: The Republicans had no interest in cooperating in a progressive reform program, not even bringing “dark money” into the light. The Commissioner then took her case public, before the sympathetic audiences in the media, but this was a dead end. Republican Commissioners are not moved by op-eds in the New York Times. By the time of her resignation yesterday, Commissioner Ravel had made her name by stressing the pointlessness of expecting anything from her agency. She may have made little headway in advancing the cause of transparency in campaign finance, but she was very clear about her own views.
Her letter of resignation is a parting expression of her commitment to strengthened enforcement of campaign finance laws. It is also a last testament to the futility of her quest. She refers to various statements the President has made about the broken campaign finance system and urges him to prioritize reform among his domestic initiatives. Of course, Mitch McConnell runs the Senate and there is no chance of his agreement to the program she advocates of ending “dark money,” reversing Citizens United, public finance and a reinvigorated FEC.
The president to which she made this last appeal may or may not have meant what he said about campaign finance. He was a billionaire candidate who could spend freely: his “money in politics” was not restricted. But he did not win by swamping his foes with superior resources. Candidates with plenty of campaign money, like Jeb Bush, failed early. On the subject of election law, this president seems far more motivated by his belief in “voter fraud.”
Rick Hasen suggests that Mr. Trump could now break the agency deadlock and add a libertarian voice to the agency, creating a majority for active deregulation without violating the rule against one party holding more than half the seats. Once in the past, in the Carter Administration, a president tried a move like this and it did not end well. Maybe in this more deeply polarized time, the outcome would be different. But here again, Mitch McConnell would have a say in the matter, and it would be surprising if he supported this provocative maneuver, which would be mostly a distraction. The FEC is not much of a problem for the Republicans: Deadlock has worked well enough for them.
So why bother to take on this new fight? How much more could the FEC not do?
But if the Republicans did cooperate with the President to pack the Commission with their own, it would cast new light on the reasons why an agency like this might be wisely structured to be 50-50, with no party controlling. Democrats and reformers, resisting the Republican power play, will now appeal to this feature of the FEC’s design. Dreaded deadlock will start to look much better.