Ann Ravel, one of the three Democratic appointees on the deeply divided Federal Election Commission, announced Sunday that she will leave her post March 1, setting up one of the first tests of how President Trump will approach campaign finance regulation.
The departure of Ravel, whose term was set to expire this spring, puts the three Republican commissioners in the majority until her replacement is selected and confirmed by the Senate. But since federal law requires at least four votes on the six-member commission to take official action, there is little the FEC can accomplish until Trump names her successor.
“They can’t do anything significant with a 3-2 vote,” said campaign finance lawyer Daniel Petalas, who served as the FEC’s acting general counsel and head of enforcement.
Ravel, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, said she decided to leave because she has been unable to make headway with what she describes as “an enforcement crisis” at the polarized agency.
“I have thought for some time that my presence on the commission was not achieving what I would like to do internally,” Ravel said in an interview. “I recognized that raising the problems at the commission — after a certain point, they stopped to resonate, if you keep saying the same things all the time.”
“I felt I could do more on the outside rather than at the commission,” added Ravel, a former California campaign finance regulator who plans to teach at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Law. Her resignation was first reported by the New York Times.
Lee Goodman, a Republican appointee to the FEC, took issue with statistics Ravel compiled showing that ideological deadlocks had essentially paralyzed the agency, calling them misleading.
“Ann has been a determined voice for regulation of First Amendment rights and I wish her well in private life after the commission,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “I expect her to remain engaged in the important debate that has animated our time on the commission together.”
The opening at the FEC provides Trump with an opportunity to demonstrate the tack he plans to take toward the growing reach of the wealthy in politics. There was a surge of massive donations by the super-rich in the 2016 presidential race, with just 10 mega-donor individuals and couples contributing nearly 20 percent of the $1.1 billion raised by super PACs by the end of August, according to a Washington Post analysis.
Trump made denouncing big donors a centerpiece of his presidential bid, lambasting the role of super PACs and promising to “drain the swamp.”
His rhetoric was at odds with that of many congressional Republican leaders and conservatives, who have sought to roll back limits on political contributions. One of the biggest advocates for deregulating campaign finance is former FEC commissioner Donald McGahn – now Trump’s White House counsel.
Among the controversial measures that McGahn pushed at the agency was an effort to bar FEC staff members from sharing information with federal prosecutors unless the panel first gave its approval.
By tradition, the selection of Ravel’s replacement would go to the Senate Democratic leadership, but it is unclear whether the Trump administration will follow that practice. The president cannot select a Republican to fill the post, because federal law bars the commission from having more than three registered members of either party seated on the panel. But he could appoint an independent to the seat.
Ravel’s departure could trigger other resignations on the commission if the White House decides to push for a broader overhaul of the agency, which has been mired in personal acrimony. Four of Ravel’s colleagues are serving expired terms.
Ravel said she is hopeful that Trump will tap someone in line with the concerns he expressed on the campaign trail, adding that she believes the deepening concentration of political money is warping the political system.
“It adds to the polarization and nastiness and unwillingness to compromise that we see both at the commission and in Congress,” she said.