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.”

The White House Counsel and Donald Trump

December 12, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

To put the point in mildest terms, Ellen Weintraub and Don McGahn do not get along. When they served together on the Federal Election Commission, their mutual hostility was well enough known, and their time apart since Mr. McGahn left the agency does not appear to have eased the tension – – certainly not on Commissioner Weintraub's side, and probably not on Mr. McGahn's. Now Ms. Weintraub has published an op-ed in The Washington Post, arguing on the basis of her experience with Don McGahn that he is not fit to be the next White House Counsel.

How McGahn will perform in his current job might be judged as Commissioner Weintraub suggests, by putting the weight she does on a particular reading of his record at the FEC. Or, on a different view, a distinction could be drawn between Mr. McGahn's past and future roles, and a different standard of evaluation could be adopted for the work now ahead of him. In choosing the first of these alternatives, the Commissioner may be incorrectly framing the question of McGahn's suitability as White House Counsel and directing attention away from what is more relevant in assessing the role and performance of that Counsel in the incoming Administration.

The Allure of Reform and A Modest Proposal

September 20, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

Matt Grossman and David A Hopkins have pronounced many decades of liberal reform to be a failure. In a new book, they argue that the 1970s reform program did not lead to the success of liberal policies but may have been primarily advantageous to "ideological Republicans." For a party that is "a coalition of social groups, each with pragmatic policy concerns," the Democrats wound up undermining the transactional politics among various interests that would produce their preferred policy outcomes. Making matters worse was a shift of voter sentiment against government-driven solutions. The Republicans, happy to oblige the popular sentiment by blocking legislation, fared better than Democrats actually interested in passing it. Grossman and Hopkins conclude that in the future, Democrats "should assess whether each potential change is likely to benefit the Democratic coalition or the more ideological Republicans."

The problem always is the hazard of predicting the partisan or policy impact of any reform measure. To the extent that Grossman and Hopkins are urging Democrats to guess, they are necessarily allowing for the fairly large possibility that they will guess wrong. And even the ways in which they may be wrong are not anticipated all that reliably. In other words, both the benefits and the costs--the shape of success and the look of failure--will be very hard to judge. The mistakes made can be costly.

None of this would matter if those promoting reform could satisfy themselves that it satisfied other measures of success. For example, do those reforms enhance public confidence in the political process, or lessen the risk of corruption in government? Not so much, it seems, which is not to say that things would not be worse on this score without the reforms. But if it is true that reforms have contributed little to the success of the progressive policy agenda, the absence of other consolations, like a government that enjoys the public’s confidence, only compounds the sense of failure and dissatisfaction.

The Grossman/Hopkins argument tends to strengthen the case for targeted modest reforms that don't rest on ambitious expectations about policy or partisan effects. Rather than each party trying to game which reforms will serve their particular interests, they might collaborate on purging the current regulatory system of its inanities, inconsistencies and inefficiencies.

A Legal Note from the World of Conventions

July 26, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

In 1984 there was a flap over the funding of delegates slates. The Mondale campaign, it was charged, had cheated on the campaign spending limits by putting the money into convention delegate selection. Delegate financing hasn’t been an issue since then, and it still really is not, except that it is worth noting a case recently and successfully brought to loosen the limits on delegate financing. The case, settled with the FEC, frees delegates to accept contributions from nonprofit corporations. It is a step in the right direction in making the laws more sensible, admittedly on an obscure point, but it is still better to have legal reform happen whenever possible.

The Pillar Law Institute noted that individuals can contribute without limits to delegates, to fund convention-related expenses, but corporations, including nonprofit corporations, cannot. The Institute proposed to help delegates without means to attend the Republican convention, to supply them with educational materials, and to offer them legal support pro bono if necessary to defend them against litigation threats (e.g. from Donald Trump). It sued for a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief.

Citizens United and the “Impossible Dream”

July 13, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

Justice Ginsburg’s recent press comments have been noted mostly for her openly expressed disdain for the Trump candidacy. Less surprising in the remarks was the Justice’s “impossible dream” that Citizens United be overturned. She has said this before, and since she dissented in that case, there is not much news here, unless anyone still had doubts that for this Justice, the killing off of that decision is a priority.

The comment was reported at the same time as the Complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission by Representative Ted Lieu and others who intend to set into motion the reconsideration the Justice is hoping for. And so it invites an appraisal of its prospects for accomplishing the Justice Ginsburg’s “impossible dream.”

As my colleague Marc Elias has pointed out, the FEC cannot succeed; this is a lost cause. When the Complaint fails, it may do little more than unnecessarily promote the belief that CU is here to stay. It is not clear why this is the best legal maneuver, or the most effective exercise in public communications, in the attack on Speechnow and Citizens United.

Aside from the question of strategy, the Complaint itself  is a surprisingly subdued performance. It has a bit the feel of going-through-the-motions: doing the least possible to set up the agency dismissal and the move to the courts. True, the Complainants knew that the outcome at the agency was inevitable and there is time later to build their argument. But the case they preview in the Complaint seems flat and this certainly can’t help the Complainants in their subsequent appeal.