Can two new FEC nominees fix a ‘mired’ agency?


Five years after the Senate last approved new members to the nation's election watchdog agency, President Barack Obama's two nominees face their first test Wednesday at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. And while no opposition has surfaced so far, there remain plenty of questions about whether new members can change an agency that's taking on one-tenth the number of enforcement actions that it did a decade ago.

Obama's two picks for the Federal Election Commission are California regulator Ann Ravel and Virginia lawyer Lee Goodman. Ravel would fill an open Democratic seat; Goodman would replace Republican Commissioner Don McGahn, whose term — like that of every sitting member of the FEC — has expired. 

Obama's last attempt to add a new commissioner to the FEC failed in 2010 when his pick, labor lawyer John Sullivan, withdrew his nomination after becoming caught up in a larger power struggle over the agency.

The president's decision to send a bipartisan pair of nominees to the Senate should improve both of their chances, says former FEC Chairman Michael Toner. "A Republican and a Democrat gives everyone [in the Senate] something to be for," Toner said.

But the addition of Ravel and Goodman may do little to change the battle that has been ongoing for years now between Democratic commissioners who want to tighten rules on campaign finance disclosure and Republicans seeking to loosen them — and neither party holding the four votes required to get its way.

The gridlock afflicting the FEC is exemplifed by the current move by Republican commissioners to prevent the commission's own staff from communicating with the Justice Department about investigations. And the FEC has taken fewer enforcement actions in recent years, leading campaign reformers to charge that it has become a sham.  According to Public Citizen, the commissioners deadlocked on enforcement actions just one percent of the time in 2003, compared to more than 18 percent of the time last year. In 2003, the commissioners voted on more than 1,000 enforcement actions. Last year the figure was 135.

Even so, some FEC observers are hopeful. Confirmation of Ravel and Goodman would bring the FEC to its full complement of commissioners for the first time since February when Democratic Commissioner Cynthia Bauerly departed to become labor commissioner in her home state of Minnesota. Brett Kappel, a lawyer at Arent Fox, thinks that may help alter the dynamic. "On a commission of six commissioners, any change in the personalities of people involved will matter," he said.

It will also no doubt be a relief for FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub, who called both Ravel and Goodman well qualified, mainly beause Goodman's confirmation would signal the exit of McGahn, her main nemesis. Weintraub told the Boston Globe recently that McGahn, an outspoken opponent of campaign finance limits, never returns her phone calls; McGahn said she never calls.

Weintraub, who has called the FEC "mired," told Sunlight she welcomes the prospect of new colleagues. “I do think that it will be very good for agency to get some new people on board and get some new thoughts and ideas," she said. The Democratic chairwoman has often decried the Republican commissioners' unwillingness to change the FEC's disclosure regulations after the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United that undercut many campaign finance limits. 

Ravel would also be a likely ally of hers. As the head of the California's election watchdog agency, Ravel has been a fierce advocate of disclosure who gained national attention for suing a Republican nonprofit group from Arizona that funneled $11 million into Californian days before the 2012 election. She accused the group of violating a rule in California that says nonprofits must disclose donations earmarked for state elections.

That set off an ongoing legal fight that has led the public to know more about the source of the money, linking it to other two conservative groups with links to Karl Rove and Charles and David Koch: Americans for Job Security and the Center to Protect Patients Rights, respectively.  

The Arizona nonprofit's lawyers said she leads a “one-woman media onslaught, rabble-rousing and prejudging, including 'tweeting' her incendiary view."

She is proud of her work. "We never did find out the individual before Election Day but knowing we didn't know, and how important it was and finding out it was a shell game and finding there were more levels of hiding, it certainly served a purpose," she told the Mercury News.

Goodman, a lawyer at the D.C law firm LeClair Ryan and general counsel to the Virginia GOP, has tried to overturn certain campaign finance laws. He argued in federal court in 2011 that a ban on corporate contributions to federal campaigns — long a staple of federal regulations — was unconstitutional. He won in a lower court but a federal appeals court declined to hear the case, leaving the ban in place. 

He also defended a Hillary Clinton presidential campaign donor accused of using other people as conduits to make contributions, a violation of law. His client, Eugene Biagi, eventually pleaded guilty to the straw donor scheme and was sentenced to two years supervised probation. 

As the Center for Public Integrity pointed out, Goodman has also provided legal counsel to former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who ran unsuccessfully for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. He also donated to the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain. Ravel has given to John Kerry in 2003, Hillary Clinton in 2007 and Barack Obama in 2008.