Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ann Ravel’s Shakespearian Tragedy

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a conspirator discusses murdering a King, “And, by that destiny, to perform an act, Whereof what’s past is prologue; what to come, In yours and my discharge.” The immortal line reminds (or warns) how past events direct the present and predict the future.

Federal elections are ready-made plays where potent mixtures of power, money, ideology, and personality coalesce to produce climatic moments when Americans select their leaders. The FEC plays a small but significant role in the drama, regulating the stage where candidates, parties, and advocacy groups perform.  

FEC Vice Chair Ann Ravel, however, is determined to transform the Commission’s role from stage manager to producer; in essence giving it final say over ‘budgets’ and ‘scripts.’ In Checks and Balances for Economic Growth (MUR 6729), the Commission deadlocked on whether online advertisements fell under the FEC’s aegis. The Republican Commissioners, adhering to precedent, refused to embroil the FEC in online political advertisements. The vote, however, allowed Ms. Ravel to advocate for expanding the Commission’s enforcement authority into cyberspace.  

Commissioner Ravel’s past career as head of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) revealed the prologue and predicted the future—a future inimical to the American political experience.  

Ravel fixated on internet speech in her tenure at the FPPC. In 2012, she proposed requiring California political bloggers—even those residing outside the state—to disclose funding sources and place disclaimers on their websites. The widely panned measure would have eviscerated anonymous online speech and required volumes of regulations.  

Among the questions raised: Could a blogger evade disclosure by working for a consultant, not the campaign itself? What value should be reported for a hyperlink from one website to another? Would disclosure be required if a candidate responded to a favorable blog post by later buying advertising on the site? The FPPC quickly canned the measure after immediate and fierce blowback.

The Vice Chair’s current bid to regulate internet political speech has also attracted stinging reviews from critics. And as Chairman Lee E. Goodman pointed out, the proposal would place the FEC in the ultra vires position of regulating speech itself, instead of political expenditures.

Commissioner Ravel’s background foretold more than just her speech-stifling ambitions. She also revealed a penchant to cast herself in a starring role. In her last act as FPPC head, she triumphantly held a news conference to announce a settlement in a “dark money” case, and then promptly hit the media circuit.

Now as Vice Chair, she recently completed a three-city “listening” tour. Her tour happened to coincide with the height of election season in the ambit of three hotly contested races. A Larry Lessig-backed group (one tentacle in his Less-Squid of “reformer” organizations) heavily promoted the tour and provided handy talking points to supporters attending the meetings.

Unfortunately, Commissioner Ravel has carried over a final attribute from her Golden State days: a penchant for sloppiness. In her FPPC closing act, she repeatedly cited “the Koch Brothers” and their “network,” as villains, despite their denials of involvement in the case. She later retracted the charge in an interview. After last week’s deadlock, she cited a 2003 California government report to support her internet-regulatory objectives. The report’s recommendations, however, do not comport with her aims:

Our Commission believes that the advantages of enabling Internet political activity currently do, and for the foreseeable future will, far outweigh the benefits of restricting its potential through heavy-handed regulation. For that reason, we urge the legislature, the FPPC, and all others with interpretive or enforcement power to resist the temptation to adopt laws or regulations that, no matter how well intended, would have the practical effect of reducing the remarkable ability of new technology to empower candidates and voters. In particular, we think that the government should resist calls for excessive requirements that could unnecessarily, and perhaps unintentionally, inhibit or criminalize citizen participation in politics via the Internet.

Vice Chair Ravel took an important step by voting to update the Citizens United regulations. Some thought it was the beginning of a new act for the FEC. The past may be prologue, but that doesn't mean the script can’t be edited.

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