By M.D. Kittle | Watchdog.org
The Obama administration appointee poised to become the most powerful election regulator in America took her national listening tour to Atlanta’s Emory University last week to hear from people “across the political spectrum” about the state of campaign finance.
But is Federal Election Commission Vice Chairwoman Ann Ravel’s campaign financing forum, dubbed “The Future of Elections and Democracy” just a big government dog-and-pony show to build a case for more regulation at the peril of privacy and protected anonymous speech?
Critics contend the sessions are mainly drawing left-leaning supporters of broader restrictions on money in political speech in a post-Citizens United world.
FACT-FINDING MISSION?: Federal Election Commission Vice Chairwoman Ann Ravel held a public forum in Atlanta last week on her national listening tour to take comment on campaign finance. But is the tour a way to bolster support for more regulations of political speech?
Ravel said she’s simply on an information-gathering mission.
“The reality is that I come from a local government background where you actually listen to the community and care about the whole community; you are not isolating it to one particular group,” the commissioner said in an interview with Watchdog.org and Watchdog Radio last week. “And that is my intention. I really want to hear from people across the political spectrum whether they are Republicans, Democrats or independents. I am hearing from people that are from all political beliefs, I believe.”
“While I understand that there may be groups that are being marshalled, that is not my intent, by any means. And I don’t have any ultimate aim in this other than to hear what people have to say and put it down in some sort of document so that I can share it with my fellow commissioners and the public and make a decision after I’ve completed the tour. I have no predisposed opinion on this.”
The Atlanta session, according to media accounts, was sparsely attended. One count put the crowd at about 50 people.
It wasn’t for lack of trying by organizations such as Represent.Us.
The left-leaning group bills itself as a “non-partisan movement to pass tough anti-corruption laws in cities and states across America, and end the legalized corruption that has come to define modern politics.”
As progressive investigative publication Mother Jones reported in 2012, Represent.Us is a project of United Republic, a campaign finance group that, “like many of the outside spending organizations it takes aim at, is a 501(c)(4)” social welfare organization.
The group is backed by an odd amalgamation of political bedfellows, including troubled lobbyist-turned-reformer Jack Abramoff, Occupy Wall Street’s inner circle, the DC Tea Party Patriots, and former FEC Chairman Trevor Potter, lead lawyer for U.S. Sen. John McCain’s political campaigns.
Potter last month delivered the keynote address at the 40th anniversary of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, lauding one of the more restrictive political speech regulators in the land — a commission Ravel chaired before being appointed by President Barack Obama to the FEC.
In an urgent online call for action screaming “Fight Big Money!” Represent.Us alerted its network of supporters to Revel’s Atlanta stop.
“It’s incredibly rare for such a high-ranking federal official to make herself available to the public,” the announcement declared. “This is a huge opportunity to put direct pressure on the FEC to fix our broken system.”
There are many people who believe the “broken system” was fixed, in 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in the landmark Citizens United v. FEC case. The decision opened the door for corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on issue advocacy. Trimming restrictions on such fundamental speech, although ballooning the amount of money spent on politics, is a reaffirmation of the First Amendment, they assert.
Ravel contends she wants to hear from those folks, too.
She said there needs to be a carefully struck line between transparency and privacy, particularly when it comes to disclosure.
“I understand that disclosure is a complicated topic and that in some ways disclosure of small donors may not be significant because what we want to know is who is influencing the elections so that we can make thoughtful decisions,” the commissioner said.
In other words, there may be no need for disclosure for everybody, “but we also have to make sure that the finance rules we have, including about disclosures, ensure a competitive political arena, where there is more speech from more people, and information to all people so they can understand how to better vote in a way that is consistent with their views” Ravel said.
Disclosure for some and not for others, however, could be just as legally problematic as the campaign finance laws before Citizens United.
What of the manifold cases of harassment and threats to issue advocates by organizations and individuals violently hostile to different points of views?
While Ravel said the Supreme Court, as well as the FEC, have acknowledged disclosure is “important for democracy,” she said in instances of “extreme harassment or threats” the court and the FEC “recognize an exemption for disclosure.”
“But I think the problem comes in when people confuse disagreement with someone’s political viewpoint as harassment,” she said. “Exercising a First Amendment right to speak out against someone’s political view or to boycott, that’s a First Amendment right. That’s not harassment.”
On the subject of so-called “dark money,” the nefarious-sounding term coined by the left to describe the kind of legal nondisclosure of campaign spending that the left and right regularly engage in: Ravel disagrees the protections of anonymous speech extend back to the founding generation of the United States, post-Revolutionary War, although the historical record suggests otherwise.
“Yes it was true when they (Founding Fathers) were fighting against England and people were afraid of recriminations, there was anonymity, but I think to be competitive and not to be corrupt or one-sided, there has to be transparency in the marketplace of ideas,” Ravel said. “It’s very important to require that information be provided to the public. The public has a right to know.”
She compared financial disclosure regulations to the necessity of listing the ingredients on a box of cereal.
“That information is important for people to know whether they want to buy it or not,” she said. “Similarly people should know who’s making large contributions to campaigns so they can get a sense of how to vote.”
What the commissioner does, and what she concludes, will be even more significant moving forward. She will become chair of the powerful FEC agency next year.
Hear the entire interview with Ravel here.