The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is composed of three Democrats and three Republicans, who are appointed to oversee the enforcement of federal election laws. Ann Ravel, vice chair of the Federal Election Commission, spoke with the Gate’s Daniel Simon about the FEC’s work to enforce federal election laws in a political landscape altered by Citizens United.
The Gate: What is the FEC’s role in the debate on campaign finance? As a bipartisan commission, objectivity in enforcement is essential, but naturally each member of the commission has his or her own opinions. Are there ever issues with a deadlock in a decision amongst the members, and if so, how do you work through them?
Ann Ravel: Generally, the 3-3 system is not an inherently bad setup for this agency. The even division is essential to ensure that there is fairness in the enforcement process. The FEC was established in the wake of Watergate by the Republicans to prevent something like Watergate from happening again, and there was a lot of concern on the part of Democrats about potential unfairness in enforcement. In the past, the 3-3 system has worked well, and while partisanship has been an issue on occasion, we are an enforcement agency, a regulatory agency, so members understand that we need to apply our applications and interpretations fairly. In recent years, that has not been the case: it has become a lot more difficult. I am a strong proponent of disclosure [releasing records of donations to political campaigns and committees]. I think it is the right thing to do. The law for the FEC is that if you engage in electioneering communications or advocacy relating to a federal candidate, then you are required to disclose donors. I don’t feel my views are tainting the process because the laws provide for this disclosure. It is the interpretation of the laws that has been made more difficult.
Gate: Can you speak a bit on the differences between the states and the federal system? I am from Pennsylvania, where it is very easy to form a Super PAC. I could form a Super PAC on my own in a few hours if I wanted. Do you think this is an issue for your work given the legal separations between the states and the federal system?
Ravel: I think that it is important for states to have their own rules and regulations that reflect the individual desires of the states. It isn’t terribly difficult to separate state and federal campaigns. However, there are sometimes overlapping issues, and in those cases the laws are clear that the federal laws have precedence.
Gate: I spoke with someone familiar with the GOP’s strategy and this person said that a potential solution to the issues of disclosure would be to eliminate the limits on personal contributions to candidates. The candidates and parties would prefer this system, however the limits have made impossible to give infinitely to those you wish to see elected. Do you think this is a potentially viable solution to eliminate Super PACs on both sides of the aisle?
Ravel: That solution has been posed because of the huge increase in independent expenditures from Super PACs and 501(c)(4)s [another form of independent political committee]. Many of these spenders are not required to abide by disclosure rules, which disadvantages candidates because candidates have limits on the amounts that they are allowed to receive from individuals and they are required to disclose donors. I do think that caps, while they may be too low or have other technical issues, serve a really important purpose. I think they increase the quality of the campaigning and permit a level playing field for all candidates so that some people who are able to fundraise personally are not guaranteed to be those who win. Many candidates who are women or minorities are unable to get out of the gate because they do not have the fundraising infrastructure that other candidates do.
Gate: There are two potential avenues for major reform according to academics with whom I’ve spoken: One is that someone files a lawsuit on the grounds that the First Amendment does not guarantee freedom of anonymity in speech, thus requiring disclosure of contributors. The other is that we have nationally funded elections, which would prevent individuals from using campaign finance to advance personal interests. Is either one plausible, and on what timeframe?
Ravel: It is hard to predict what is going to happen in the near future. With a divided Congress, it is going to be difficult to get the kind of reforms you allude to, and with the Supreme Court making the decisions it is making, it will be very difficult to get a decision for major reform in the near future. But, there is something in-between. There are methods of implementing public financing that may make some level of difference, but it is hard to tell where and when something like that will be implemented given the current state of affairs in both the state legislatures and the Congress.
The image featured in this article is courtesy of the Institute of Politics and can be found here.