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Ann Ravel Resigns Her Seat On The Federal Election Commission


We're going to spend the next few minutes talking about federal campaign finance laws. It is the job of the Federal Election Commission, the FEC, to enforce those. One member of the FEC says it's been rendered essentially useless because the six commissioners who sit on the FEC - three Democrats and three Republicans - can't seem to agree on anything. Democratic FEC Commissioner Ann Ravel says she has had enough of the gridlock and the infighting, so she's quitting. She joins us now in our studios to talk about her decision.

Thanks so much for coming in.

ANN RAVEL: Oh, thank you for inviting me, Rachel.

MARTIN: You've been on the commission for just over three years. Many commissioners served sometimes a decade or more. Why quit now?

RAVEL: Well, my term is actually close to ending anyway. And I do believe that the terms are important so people can come in with fresh ideas.

MARTIN: All the more reason, if you were expected to step down relatively soon...

RAVEL: Right.

MARTIN: ...Why do it in this moment?

RAVEL: Well, it's been something that I've wanted to do for a while - is leave and go back to my home state of California because I recognize that it is very difficult to accomplish anything relating to the important - and I have to stress that - really important mission of this agency. And I'm a person - I've been in government service as a public official for most of my career.


RAVEL: And I feel strongly that that work is truly a public service and that you don't do it unless you can accomplish what the public expects you to accomplish when you take on that job.

MARTIN: So why haven't you been able to do that?

RAVEL: The commission is divided by statute - no more than three of one political party. But in the past, that has worked very well even though it requires four votes to do just about anything. But recently, the commissioners - mostly on the Republican side - have operated as a bloc to ensure that you can never get four votes to either investigate matters, to do regulations, to explain to the public how to comply with the law - even to appoint a general counsel. There has not been a general counsel since I've been there. So because of that decision by them to form an ideological bloc to anything happening, they are able to succeed.

MARTIN: Although one of your fellow commissioners, Lee Goodman, one of the Republicans, says it's not that the laws aren't being enforced, as you have alleged. That - it's that there's been a lot of deregulation in recent years, and so it's just that the laws have changed.

RAVEL: Well, he's right that there has been a lot of deregulation in the last few years. But actually, the laws that I'm talking about are very clear. The Supreme Court, even in Citizens United, said...

MARTIN: This is the 2010 Supreme Court decision...


MARTIN: ...Allowing corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts money.

RAVEL: Exactly. But as part of that decision, they affirmed the importance of disclosure of all campaign finance transactions. That's essentially the duty of the Federal Election Commission. And yet, the Republican commissioners are unwilling to vote to investigate groups that are clearly not disclosing who is behind campaign contributions.

MARTIN: So do you think the issue of dark money - so-called dark money in politics is getting worse? Because there are many conservatives who will point to Donald Trump's victory in the past presidential election and say - listen, this is a guy who won despite the fact that big, conservative PACs and organizations didn't back him.

RAVEL: Well, that's not entirely true. I mean, that was more true in the primary. But he...

MARTIN: Although Hillary Clinton outspent him....

RAVEL: Yes. There's...

MARTIN: And especially when we get to large donors.

RAVEL: ...No question that she outspent him. But there were super PACs that supported Donald Trump as well.

But the actual extent of dark money, of course, is unknown because, by its very, nature it's dark. But we have seen at the commission that people are setting up limited liability corporations solely for the purpose of hiding their identities to give money to campaigns - 501(c)(4)s and (c)(6)s under the tax code that are supposed to be social welfare organizations are still giving to campaigns. And so we don't know where that money's coming from. We don't know the extent of foreign money in our elections.

MARTIN: And you're saying you haven't been able to investigate these things?

RAVEL: No, we have not. We have had cases at the commission where 97 percent of the money spent by an organization is on political campaigns. In fact, we had one not too long ago relating to Carolina Rising.

MARTIN: Tell us what Carolina Rising...

RAVEL: Carolina Rising was an social welfare organization - so-called. But they actually spent 97 percent of their funds on a Senate race in North Carolina. And the night of the election, at the senator's campaign party, the head of Carolina Rising said, we did it.

MARTIN: So that's what you would characterize as dark money?

RAVEL: It was. The donors were not disclosed. And the commission, as usual, split 3-3 and couldn't get four votes to either investigate, which wasn't necessary since he admitted it, or enforce the law.

MARTIN: So what now for you?

RAVEL: Well, I do think that the commission is too fraught to make change. And the problem is these institutions, these regulatory agencies, are just representative of the federal government as a whole and the threats to our democratic institutions. It's really important for the public to know about that threat and to think about it and be aware of it. So I want to work from the outside in a way that will tell the public about the concerns and try to devise ways to deal with them.

MARTIN: Ann Ravel is a democratic commissioner on the FEC. She's stepping down March 1.

Thank you so much.

RAVEL: Thank you very much, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.