Politics & Policy

A Democrat’s Self-Dramatizing Departure Could Bring Real Reform to the FEC

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks after touring a Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner (Reuters: Kevin Lamarque)
Real FEC reform would be the opposite of what Ann Ravel and her Democratic colleagues want.

When Ann Ravel, a Democratic member of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), announced her intention to resign Sunday, she received, as she has throughout her tenure at the FEC, a surprising amount of news coverage. While her departure may not immediately change the partisan balance of the commission, because traditionally her seat “belongs” to the Democrats, President Trump could upset that calculation if he broke with that tradition and appointed someone more aligned with the GOP (though he is not allowed to pick a registered Republican for the seat).

Ravel had become a minor political celebrity (even earning a Daily Show appearance) on the left by castigating the “deadlock” on the FEC allegedly caused by the GOP members, who wouldn’t go along with Democratic demands for campaign-finance fines.

Ravel’s resignation letter is filled with the same sort of tired Democratic rhetoric on campaign finance, demanding the overturning of Citizens United, pushing for expanded public (i.e., taxpayer) financing of political campaigns, and decrying the evils of “dark money.”

Yet President Trump showed the complete intellectual bankruptcy of the campaign-finance “reform” movement in his stunning presidential-election victory. According to the FEC’s own data, among large donors ($2,000+), Hillary Clinton out-raised Trump $175 million to $27 million, a ratio of 6.5 to 1. Despite this, and the almost unanimous support she enjoyed from our media and cultural elites, Clinton couldn’t defeat Trump. Furthermore, Bernie Sanders, an eccentric and aging socialist with no establishment backing, came close to beating Hillary in the Democratic primary despite being outspent among those same $2,000+ donors by a ratio of more than 50 to 1.

Meanwhile, in one of the most remarkable yet least reported facts about the 2016 campaign, Jeb Bush, who entered the race to a wave of publicity before going out with a whimper early in the GOP primary, raised essentially as much ($26 million) in his brief campaign from those $2,000+ donors as Trump did from this group during the entire primary and general-election cycle.

The 2016 election was, for anyone who had eyes to see it, the most dramatic repudiation possible of the false notion that big donors determine the fate of our candidates or our politics. Given such facts, Ravel’s cri de coeur is more unintentional comedy than serious political analysis. But the media refuse to report it that way because to do so would be to repudiate their Democratic party allies, while casting a favorable light on the candidacy of Donald Trump, whom they loathe.​

Real FEC reform would be the opposite of what Ravel and her Democratic colleagues want. We don’t need to increase disclosure — we need to reduce it. Or, to put it more accurately, we need to give normal political donors back their privacy — stop harassing people who give $200 or even $2,000 to candidates by forcing them to share personal information such as their name, address and, employer. Individual checks of these sizes just don’t swing state and national races, and if anyone thinks that President Trump is giving private Mar-a-Lago tours to his $200 donors, they are too ignorant to participate in politics.

Real FEC reform would be the opposite of what Ravel and her Democratic colleagues want. We don’t need to increase disclosure — we need to reduce it.

If we need disclosure at all (and given the increasingly harsh politics of personal retaliation on the left, this itself is debatable), let’s disclose the very top fundraisers and bundlers and leave it at that. We should stop the harassment of people who go to modest political fundraisers or send a few small checks online and stop making campaigns waste time collecting a dossier on anyone who sends them more than a few bucks. Donor “disclosure” requirements benefit those who give to candidates and causes that are popular with our elites, while punishing those who step out of line. It’s something between an incumbent-protection racket and a way to quash political dissent.

Think disclosure doesn’t matter? Tell that to Brendan Eich, who lost his job running the influential tech company Mozilla when it emerged, years after the fact, that in 2008 he had given $1,000 to support Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California. Eich’s donation was trivial in the context of the $40 million or so each side spent in that campaign. But he was brought down by an unholy combination of a corrupt IRS (which illegally leaked donor data for the National Organization for Marriage), ludicrous rules in the state of California (which demands disclosure of all donations over $100 to state-ballot initiatives), and a recklessly partisan Los Angeles Times, which first published a database of all of these contributors in the name of alleged “public interest” in 2008.

Are there bad actors and genuinely corrupt gifts of money in politics? Sure there are. The FEC should go after them. And people do have a right to know if a small group of people are fundamentally bankrolling a major campaign or candidate. But the truth is rarely so simple as the Ann Ravels of the world want it to be, and the FEC’s confusing and often irrational maze of rules is in no small amount responsible for creating the problems Ravel decries.

Instead of letting the Democrats use alternative facts to create a false and self-serving narrative on political financing, Trump should drain the swamp by putting up a nominee for the FEC who will fundamentally repudiate the Democrats’ campaign-funding fairytales. Among its many other benefits, this could give ordinary American political donors back their stolen privacy.

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