All the while, the FEC has gone 29 months without duly appointing a general counsel to lead its legal operations. In the meantime, the United States has legalized marriage for same-sex couples, allowed women to serve in military combat and explored Pluto, more than 3.1 billion miles from Earth.
In August, commissioners finally appointed Daniel Petalas, the FEC’s associate general counsel for enforcement, as acting general counsel for four months. They’ve since extended Petalas’ tour of duty while commissioners continue searching for a permanent replacement for Tony Herman, who resigned on July 5, 2013.
Part of the problem, Petersen says, is Congress won’t heed the FEC’s standing request to boost the general counsel’s salary range — something the FEC itself can’t do. As a result, the agency finds itself in a peculiar situation where a young attorney working as a commissioner’s assistant could theoretically earn a higher salary than the agency’s top lawyer.
Furthermore, the FEC continues to grapple with dozens of unresolved enforcement cases, some of which are now years old.
If the FEC can’t change itself, who will?
There are 26 bills and resolutions pending in Congress that mention the FEC by name in some fashion.
Some aim to strengthen political disclosure laws. Others call for limiting the power of super PACs, or reforming the FEC, or protecting politically active nonprofit groups from government overreach. Almost all of them languish in a U.S. House or U.S. Senate committee. None have become law.
Prospects for an FEC overhaul in particular are low, but there is a “growing recognition in the public that the FEC is broken,” said Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., an outspoken campaign reform advocate.
“Unfortunately, there are some in Congress — notably, [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell — who are perfectly content with the status quo,” he said.
Representatives for McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, could not be reached for comment.
The senator’s attempts this month to relax election restrictions via Congress’ omnibus spending bill are, however, a clear indication of his interest in further deregulating political campaigns.
So don’t expect Congress to step up, even as the FEC’s six commissioners today briefly put aside their differences for a moment to send lawmakers a legislative wish list, as they do each December. Each year, a grinchy Congress all but ignores it.
The new legislative agenda passed today by the FEC includes calls for the electronic filing of U.S. Senate campaign finance reports, a fix to the general counsel salary issue and a prohibition on political operatives and politicians from pocketing the cash raise by any kind of political committee — not just candidate’s official campaign committees, as is the case now.
President Barack Obama, in a forum no less than his 2015 State of the Union Address, called for “better politics” where “we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter.”
But Obama has himself not been swift to act, either.
The president has been “unwilling to do the bare minimum,” said Kurt Walters, campaign manager for Rootstrikers, which this month released a 34-page report lambasting Obama’s handling of political money issues.
One immediate action Obama could take is replacing five of the six commissioners — Ravel is the exception — whose terms have expired. They continue to serve regardless, as the law allows.
Tradition holds that the White House and Republican leaders in the Senate work deals to nominate FEC commissioners before they face Senate confirmation hearings. But nothing’s stopping Obama from going a different route — say, creating a bipartisan nominating commission — to identify suitable FEC commission prospects.
The White House said in a statement Thursday that there are "no personnel announcements at this time." It did not respond to questions about activists criticisms of Obama.
Ravel, when asked if Obama had contacted her during her time leading the FEC, shook her head.
“No. I’ve had almost no contact with the White House,” she said.
But she quickly added that Obama’s lack of communication isn’t necessarily a bad thing, at least for her.
“No one there has told me that they are concerned about my behavior,” she said, smiling.