CONCORD — The former chairman of the Federal Elections Commission said that watchdog agency could be powerless to root out campaign finance law-breaking all the way through the 2020 election cycle.
In March 2017, California Democrat and former FEC Chair Ann Ravel made national news when she resigned from the FEC calling the entity “dysfunctional.”
She urged President Trump to support more transparency and beefed-up enforcement for regulators to go after the growing threat of dark money in federal politics.
During an interview Thursday, Ravel said the FEC has gone from “bad to worse” as earlier this week a commissioner resigned leaving the agency without a quorum to meet and do business.
By federal law, on the six-member FEC one party can have no more than three members of the same party.
Currently it’s evenly split but down to three members, one registered Republican, one Democrat and one independent.
“While it used to split 3-3 and you could not do regulations and the like, now they can’t even meet,” Ravel told the Union Leader. “Because they can’t meet, they can’t even ask the audit group to ask to do an audit to get an investigation started.”
Candidates still have to file reports, complaints can be brought, and fec.gov, its popular web site with a massive archive of campaign spending and expense data, will keep running.
Ravel said election law complaints can be taken up within five years of the incident occurring but right now there’s no deterrent to “Wild West” style campaign spending tactics in the run up to the White House campaign, she said.
“People are going to hopefully start filing their campaign reports but knowing there is not going to be at least immediate enforcement of it sends a message to people that they don’t have to be careful about it, they don’t have to do it on time,” Ravel said.
“You want to have the ability to find out who is funding elections and whether it’s in any way improper before you have the election. Finding out five years later and a slap on the wrist isn’t going to be sufficient to make people want to cooperate.”
President Trump has nominated Republican Trey Trainor of Texas to a seat on the FEC, but the Senate hasn’t taken it up.
Typically, the Senate hasn’t acted until the President has sent a “pair” of FEC nominees, one Democrat and one Republican, so the balance of power remains the same.
“There is a confluence of the White House not caring about the issue and the Senate not pushing it,” Ravel said.
“It’s both the President and the Senate majority and minority leaders who have not moved forward that has put us in this place.”
Michael Toner, another ex-FEC chair, said earlier this week there is a “real possibility” the FEC could lack a quorum through the 2020 election.
The campaign finance reform group Open Democracy Action sponsored Ravel’s trip to New Hampshire to take part in a Thursday morning briefing at the State House and later to appear at luncheon and dinner fundraisers for the group in Peterborough and Greenland.
Joining Ravel at the State House was Maine Republican State Sen. Roger Katz who spoke about the success of public financing in his state that adopted the first Clean Elections statewide law in 1996.
“Maine has been judged to be among the most blue-collar Legislature in the country. There are teachers, carpenters, nurses. I am the only practicing lawyer in the state senate and a significant portion of the legislature would not be there without the opportunity to use the clean election fund,” Katz said.
Ravel said while many states have been slow to act she believes public financing is building momentum as campaigns are breaking spending and donation records with every next election.
“What people are seeing is that citizens who never thought about participating in campaigns, volunteering, donating much less running are stepping forward in states and communities with public financing. That’s a positive thing,” Ravel said.
“This is one of the ways to make people feel their role in the process is important.”
For two decades, the New Hampshire Legislature under the control of both parties has rejected public finance legislation.
A State Senate committee is studying a 2019 bill it sent back to committee last spring for more work.
State Rep. Robert “Renny” Cushing, D-Hampton, has proposed a 2020 version that would fill up the fund by making political committees, lobbyists and campaigns pay on top of their registration fees and fines levied for breaking any election laws.
Public financing would come to the race for governor when the fund reached $6.6 million; it would come to lower races once the fund had a balance of $2.9 million.
Sean Parnell is senior legislative director of Save Our States that supports the electoral college and says he’s looked at the impact of public financing.
“New York has had one oldest public financing systems in the country and I don’t think you can hold them up as some paragon of clean elections. Maine, Arizona, Connecticut have adopted laws and the reality is they have done nothing to convince more working class people to run for office,” Parnell said.
Ironically after a lifetime of public service as a former federal prosecutor and California elections watchdog, Ravel for the first time herself is running for office in her home state.
She’s running for the State Senate and is allowed to spend $930,000 on her primary campaign for a seat that will represent more people than any U.S. House congressional district.
“It’s obscene and crazy. My finance director says get into that room, shut the door and call people I don’t know and beg them for money,” Ravel said.
“All of this just reinforces in my mind the need for systemic change across the board.”