The Chairwoman Who’s At War With Her Own Agency

Ann Ravel says the Federal Election Commission is badly broken. But is her very public crusade the way to fix it?

UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 31: FEC Commissioner Lee Goodman makes a statement during his first meeting at the Commission's downtown office, as Chair Ellen Weintraub, and Commissioner Ann Ravel, look on. It was the first meeting attended by Ravel and Goodman. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images) (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

ON A THURSDAY morning in June, the six commissioners of the Federal Election Commission—three Republican appointees, three Democratic appointees—convened at their headquarters in downtown Washington for their monthly open meeting. On the agenda was a provocative item: The group’s Democratic chairwoman, Ann Ravel, and one of her Democratic colleagues, Ellen Weintraub, had filed a petition with their own commission—as if they were ordinary citizens rather than two of the six people who actually run the place. The petition urged the FEC to beef up disclosure of anonymous campaign spending and to crack down on the increasingly commonplace practice of coordination between candidates and supposedly independent super PACs.

It was a highly unorthodox move—and that was precisely the point. “People will say: ‘You’re the chair of the commission. You should work from within.’ I tried,” Ravel told CNN at the time. “We needed to take more creative avenues to try and get public disclosure.”

Now the six commissioners had before them a technical question: not whether to act on the petition—which was unlikely to happen, given their 3-3 divide on major questions and the substantial partisan enmity among them—but merely whether to publish the text of the petition in the Federal Register. This formality set off what was surely one of the most bizarre exchanges in FEC history. In the view of Matthew Petersen, one of the three Republican commissioners, because Ravel and Weintraub were sitting commissioners neither qualified as a “person” eligible to petition the FEC. Caroline Hunter, another Republican commissioner, agreed, saying there was “a lot of common sense” in Petersen’s reasoning.

Ravel and Weintraub were taken aback. “First of all, let me say, I cannot believe that you are actually going to take the position that I am not a person,” Weintraub said. “A corporation is a person, but I’m not a person? … That’s how bad it has gotten. My colleagues will not admit that I am a person.”

“My children,” she later remarked, “are going to be really disappointed.”

“I think you’re not an alien,” Hunter deadpanned, “at least not today.”

Welcome to the 2015 iteration of the Federal Election Commission, the agency that ostensibly oversees political campaigns but in fact has largely become a rancorous, demoralized, and polarized bystander to our cash-drenched elections. As of June 30, there were 78 pending enforcement cases languishing on the FEC’s books, according to Commissioner Steven Walther, one of the three Democratic appointees. Twenty-three of those cases have been unresolved for more than a year, and five of them date back to the 2012 campaign, which might as well be ancient history. “On most major issues, the commission is unable to muster four votes to do much of anything,” says Anthony Herman, the FEC’s general counsel from 2011 to 2013. Phrases that get tossed out to describe the FEC include “toothless,” “the poster child for a broken Washington,” and “worse than dysfunctional.”

That last sentiment came from the mouth of Ann Ravel, who has chaired the commission since January. Ravel, who is 66, first arrived at the FEC in the fall of 2013, after a three-decade career as a public litigator and legal adviser in California. With no plans to hang around the Beltway once her stint at the commission is over, Ravel didn’t have much to lose in Washington—which may help explain why she has taken the unusual step of publicly going to war with her own agency.

From Ravel’s perspective, the three Republican commissioners regularly vote in lockstep to deadlock and hamstring the commission. These commissioners, Ravel says, decline to enforce campaign-finance laws because they largely don’t think the laws should exist in the first place. “I never expected a body such as this, that was intended to achieve a fair result based on the law, to be one where people didn’t actually have respect for the underlying law,” she recently told me.

From the Republicans’ perspective, Ravel takes an excessively expansive view of existing regulations. “We’re not interested in going after people unless the law is fairly clear, and we’re not willing to take the law beyond where it’s written,” Republican commissioner Caroline Hunter told The New York Times in May. Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who represents a panoply of right-leaning groups, went further: “All these things that Ann Ravel does are just her complaints about not being able to be head queen and do whatever she wants with taxpayers’ money whenever and however she wants,” she told me. “I find her conduct appalling.”

Ravel and I spoke on five different occasions throughout the summer and into the fall, mostly at her office. She told me about her career in law, her tenure at the FEC, and her understanding of how things work in the nation’s capital. I came away with the sense that she had not given up hope of leaving a mark of some kind at the FEC, but her views were imbued with plenty of fatalism. “I often wake up and think, ‘What did I get myself into?’ ” she says. One day, I noticed a New Yorker cartoon taped to a shelf outside the door to Ravel’s office. A man and woman are walking outside the U.S. Capitol. “Politics,” the woman is saying to the man, “is the art of nothing is possible.”

Ann Ravel is the chair of the Federal Elections Commission.  (Chet Susslin)

Indeed, it’s tough not to conclude that the country’s top election regulator was (or still is) naïve for believing she could somehow break the impasse mucking up our campaign-finance system. “I think her heart was in the right place,” says Neil Reiff, a Democratic election lawyer in Washington. “I just think she didn’t understand the rules of engagement—and that’s alienated her. But there are definite rules of engagement in this town when it comes to campaign finance, and she may not have understood that.”

“This is what happens,” he added, “when Mr. Smith comes to Washington to regulate campaign-finance law.”

THE HISTORY OF money and politics in America is a long and messy tale, but it tends to follow a familiar pattern: The arc bends and bends toward deregulation, fewer rules, more money—until it snaps back in the wake of scandal and public outrage.

There is no clearer example than Watergate. That episode conjures images of break-ins, the Saturday Night Massacre, and Woodward and Bernstein. But Watergate was, in large part, about money in politics. There were cash drops in telephone booths, campaign funds laundered through Mexico to a Watergate burglar, and millions of dollars in illegal corporate donations flowing into President Nixon’s reelection effort.

And so, the scandal ushered in the first comprehensive effort to regulate the flow of money in and out of politics—including the advent of the FEC, which was created to enforce the new rules on campaign giving and spending. These reforms won bipartisan support in both chambers in the mid-1970s, with 75 percent of House Republicans and 41 percent of Senate Republicans voting for them.

The Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo whittled away at some of those new limits, but for much of the next few decades, the FEC ably fulfilled its regulatory mission. Until as recently as the 2000s, the commission managed to arrive at bipartisan, four- or five- or even six-vote majorities on the major issues and enforcement cases that landed on its docket. For instance, the FEC levied six-figure penalties against several prominent outside groups that spent heavily on the 2004 presidential race, including the George Soros–backed liberal group America Coming Together and the conservative Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth.

Of course, those who favored greater oversight and limits on campaign spending saw these fines—announced in 2006 and 2007—as too little, too late. Yet it was undeniable that the FEC had teeth and was going after some of the biggest players in national politics.

It wasn’t until the mid- to late-2000s that the FEC began to grow more ideological. Under the careful watch of then–Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, an avowed foe of campaign regulation, congressional Republicans nominated and confirmed commissioners who took a very narrow view of the law. Donald McGahn, a GOP-appointed commissioner who served from 2008 to 2013, once boasted at a legal symposium: “I’m not enforcing the law as Congress passed it. I plead guilty as charged.” An analysis by Public Citizen found that 3-3 deadlocks on enforcement cases occurred 1 percent of the time from 2003 to 2007 but spiked to 16 percent in 2009 and 11 percent in 2010. Total penalties collected by the FEC in major enforcement cases have declined since 2008, hitting the lowest mark in history last year.

Not helping matters was the two-year stretch the commission went without a chief lawyer. In July 2013, then–General Counsel Anthony Herman resigned largely out of frustration, after the commission failed to act on several of his office’s recommendations and sought to limit his ability to share information with the Justice Department. The FEC didn’t name a new top lawyer until this August, at which point the best it could do was appoint one of Herman’s deputies, Daniel Petalas, to a 120-day term as acting general counsel while the commission searched for a full-time replacement.

At some level, this gridlock simply mirrors the broader polarization preventing anything substantive from getting done in Washington. “If you pick any three people who reasonably represented the viewpoints of Democratic policymakers and [three who] reasonably represented Republican policymakers, you’d have the same kind of problems,” says David Mason, a former Republican commissioner.

It’s also, in the words of Marc Elias, a prominent Democratic election lawyer, “a very unsettled time in the law.” You’ll get whiplash reading Sandra Day O’Connor and John Paul Stevens’s majority opinion defending campaign-finance laws in the 2003 McConnell case and then parsing the Roberts Court’s strongly anti-regulatory opinions in Wisconsin Right to Life (2007), Citizens United (2010), and McCutcheon (2014).

All of which has helped to pave the way for an envelope-pushing free-for-all in the 2016 campaign cycle. Candidates seem to be exploiting every weakness, gray area, and loophole they can find. There was the charade of Jeb Bush delaying (and delaying and delaying) his official entrance into the presidential race so he could run around the country raising unlimited sums of money for his “independent” super PAC. Meanwhile, Carly Fiorina has effectively outsourced many of the operations of her actual campaign to her super PAC. (In May, the FEC told Fiorina’s super PAC, then named Carly for America, that it couldn’t use the candidate’s name as its own. So it re-branded itself as Conservative, Authentic, Responsive Leadership for You and for America—CARLY for America.) For its part, Hillary Clinton’s campaign is collaborating with a super PAC called Correct the Record, which churns out quick-hit research in defense of Clinton. “There’s a Wild West feeling to it, because clients say, ‘I’m not going to fight with one hand behind my back,’ ” says Trevor Potter, a Republican lawyer and former FEC chairman. “ ‘Everyone else is doing it; I have to do it, too.’ ”

It would be excessive to solely blame the FEC for this situation. Election lawyers say Congress, more than any other body, bears the burden for modernizing the coordination laws around candidates and super PACs. But at the very least, the FEC hasn’t done much to put a stop to the Wild West atmosphere. It’s the commission’s job to interpret court decisions and their impact on the law for political practitioners, yet more than five years after the Citizens United and decisions ushered in super PACs, the commission has yet to write any new rules about these groups—rules that could, for instance, spell out what specifically constitutes illegal coordination between super PACs and campaigns. Ravel says the commission could also vote to open a formal investigation into one of the many complaints it has received about campaigns coordinating with super PACs—but so far it has declined to do that, too.

As she sees it, the FEC is very much to blame for the current, almost anything-goes attitude of campaigns and super PACs. “What has more than anything become clear to me,” she said during one of our conversations, “about the impact of the failure of the FEC—”

“You’re saying it’s a failure,” I interrupted.

“It’s a failure to fulfill its function,” she said. “Because of that, we see a campaign where all of the candidates—I’m not singling out anybody—are thinking that there’s not a cop on the beat.”

NOT LONG AFTER the Republican commissioner helpfully observed that the Democratic commissioner was not in fact an alien, I met Ravel for the first time in person. Taking our seats, I casually asked how she was. “I’m good. Well, actually, not that good. But you know,” she said, laughing uneasily. She sounded particularly grim about the FEC that day—less happy warrior, more outright pessimist. When the subject of her fellow commissioners came up, she said of Petersen, the Republican appointee who challenged her “person” status: “I don’t know how he looks at himself in the morning.” (The three Republican commissioners declined requests to be interviewed for this story, although Republican Commissioner Lee Goodman sent me a statement touting his work with Ravel on the upcoming launch of a new FEC website.)

Ravel describes herself as an “old-time government person,” which is to say someone who believes that pulling the levers of state and federal government can create a more equitable political system and democracy. When it comes to campaign finance, it isn’t the specter of corruption per se that motivates her; it’s the fear that regular citizens are tuning out politics—opting not to vote or donate or run for office—because of all the time we spend debating whether politicians are bought and sold.

Her political philosophy stems from her upbringing. Raised all over the world, Ravel grew up in a Democratic family that eventually settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. A self-described “activist at heart,” she embraced the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, joining the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and registering with the Peace and Freedom Party in college. Her mother, a Brazilian immigrant who’d married Ravel’s father while he was working in South America as a meteorologist, took Ravel to see prominent female politicians speak and imbued in her a “sympathy for the underdog” as well as a responsibility to try “to make sure that things are better for the community as a whole,” she recalls.

She worked for decades as a lawyer for Santa Clara County, then the U.S. Justice Department’s civil division, before California Gov. Jerry Brown asked her in 2011 to chair the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state’s version of the FEC. Despite her progressive streak, she quickly ran afoul of good-government types in this role. For instance, she advocated updating the state’s rules on gift-giving to public officials and regulations around conflicts of interest. “The purpose of the agency—and I think the same is true at the FEC—is not to dissuade people from running for office or being elected officials or being public officials,” she told me. “I spent a lot of time revising these rules.” She also ended the FPPC’s practice of posting online the identities of people being investigated by the commission. Since by law the FPPC must look into every legitimate complaint it receives, the practice was giving people a quick and easy way to embarrass political opponents. “It seemed unjust,” Ravel told me. But that reasoning didn’t fly with California Common Cause and other campaign-finance reformers, who criticized her as soft. Dan Schnur, her predecessor at the commission, said at the time that she “seems to have decided that the interests of the political attorneys and lobbyists should take priority over those of the voters.”

By far, the most contentious chapter of her time at the FPPC began when $11 million in secret money flowed into California in the run-up to Election Day 2012. The money went to influence two fiercely contested ballot initiatives, one that proposed temporarily increasing income and sales taxes to boost education funding and another that proposed curbing the ability of labor unions to raise money for political activities. The donor for the $11 million was listed as Americans for Responsible Leadership, an Arizona-based nonprofit that had never before played in California politics; but the original source of the money was unknown.

Under California law, political committees participating in statewide contests are required to disclose the true source of their funds. Thus began a winding battle in which Ravel and the FPPC fought to get the names of the donors. It wasn’t until nearly a year after Election Day that Ravel concluded the investigation, announcing that the money had been passed through a network of groups aligned with the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. While the commission’s settlement did not outright name any human donors, documents released as part of the deal identified billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, investment executive Charles Schwab, and members of the Fisher family, which owns the Gap clothing store, as all having donated.

Ravel’s work on the case raised her national profile, and in June 2013, President Obama nominated her to the FEC. The prospect of working for the country’s top political watchdog held some appeal, but given her sleuthing at the FPPC and outspoken positions on disclosure and regulation, she doubted she’d get through the Senate confirmation process. “I actually told Governor Brown: ‘Don’t worry, I’m never going to get confirmed,’ ” she recalls. Unbeknownst to her, however, her nomination was paired with that of a Republican nominee, a white-shoe law-firm partner named Lee Goodman. Together, she and Goodman were confirmed unanimously.

But there were portents of what was to come. At her hearing before the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, Ravel responded to a question from Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri by saying that she believed in restraint when meting out punishment to those who run afoul of the law, especially small committees or first-time candidates who make honest, minor mistakes. After the hearing, Ravel told me, she bumped into Ellen Weintraub, her future Democratic colleague on the FEC. “You’re going to regret something you said at the hearing,” Ravel recalls Weintraub telling her.

“I said, ‘What was that?’ ”

“She said, ‘You’re going to regret [saying] you don’t believe in going after small things, because that’s all we do.’ ” What Weintraub meant (as she later told me herself) was that at today’s divided FEC, tackling big, important matters wasn’t in the cards.

NONETHELESS, RAVEL STARTED at the commission in October 2013 with high hopes. In their confirmation hearings, both she and Lee Goodman had stressed the importance of cooperation and civility, qualities sorely lacking at the FEC in recent years. In California, Ravel’s decisions at the FPPC had more often than not earned the support of the commission’s Republican members.

Her hopes were quickly dashed. “I was so naïve, obviously,” she told me. “It’s such a different world being in California versus here.” Ravel points to several high-profile cases that came before the FEC after her arrival as evidence of the commission’s failure to carry out its mission. The most prominent one involved Crossroads GPS, an anonymously funded group affiliated with Karl Rove and one of the biggest outside spenders in all of U.S. politics. Social welfare nonprofits like Crossroads are obligated to spend the majority of their funds on, well, social welfare, yet the FEC’s lawyers found that Crossroads’s nearly $21 million in political spending in 2010 added up to more than half of its outlays. Crossroads’s stature in the post–Citizens United landscape meant that the case was a closely watched one, and the legal and symbolic implications were huge: How the FEC acted would send a strong signal to donors and consultants about what would and wouldn’t fly in this brave new world. The FEC’s general counsel concluded that Crossroads had likely broken the law and implored the commissioners to authorize an investigation. Yet the commission deadlocked.

In another instance, the commission split 3-3 on a case about whether the pro-Clinton super PAC Ready for Hillary violated FEC requirements by failing to disclose a $137,000 payment to rent an email list belonging to Clinton’s Senate campaign committee. The FEC’s general counsel proposed a “limited investigation” into Ready for Hillary, and the three Democratic appointees voted in favor of it. But again the three Republican appointees voted against any action, closing the case.

Ravel also came to learn that the legal system was, for the most part, not going to break the FEC’s deadlocks. A principle established by the Supreme Court known as “Chevron deference” says judges should typically defer to the decisions of federal agencies. What shocked Ravel was that this principle applied to the FEC’s 3-3 votes, even though they were arguably less a decision than a failure to decide. “It drives me crazy, because it feels like the judges have actually abdicated their responsibility,” she says. “And so there is really no way to remedy these abuses in law.”

By the six-month mark, Ravel had decided that solely playing the inside game at the FEC wasn’t working. In April 2014, she lambasted her Republican colleagues in a New York Times op-ed that began, “The Federal Election Commission is failing to enforce the nation’s campaign finance laws. I’m in a position to know. I’m the vice chairwoman of the commission.”

Her decision to speak out did not go over well inside the commission. Ravel recalls that her Republican colleagues castigated her in a meeting right after the op-ed came out for “lacking collegiality,” as she put it. Looking to shore up her relationships with the Republicans, Ravel subsequently cut a deal with Goodman, then the commission chair, and Republican Caroline Hunter. (The chair position is a symbolic, largely powerless rotating title at the FEC.) She would give the Republicans a fourth vote on several sought-after measures of theirs, if they would agree to a hearing open to any member of the public concerning the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, a ruling that permitted wealthy donors to give vastly more money to PACs and political parties. Ravel saw the hearing as a way to draw attention to the need for greater transparency at a time when disclosure rules are increasingly fuzzy and open to evasion. And she was willing to horse-trade with Republicans to get it.

For this and other votes with the Republicans, liberal advocates excoriated her. After Ravel gave the Republicans a fourth vote on expanded party-convention fundraising, Fred Wertheimer, the bushy-browed dean of the campaign-finance-reform community, shot off an email to his allies in which he wrote: “Ann Ravel just sold us out … and can no longer be considered a friend of reform or an advocate for our goals.” For Ravel, Wertheimer’s email was evidence that she had managed to provoke the ire of all sides in the money-in-politics debate. “I’m hated by everybody,” she told me.

As her profile on the commission rose, Ravel became acquainted with the nastier side of today’s political debate. In October 2014, after the FEC deadlocked on a vote over whether to investigate a group that ran a series of online-only ads attacking President Obama and Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Ravel released a statement in which she called on the FEC to revisit its 2006 exemption for online campaign-style activity. (The exemption left unregulated basically all online politicking—blogging, video-making, emailing, website-hosting—except for paid political advertising.) She pledged to bring together “technologists, social entrepreneurs, policy wonks, politicos, and activists” to think about how the commission’s rules could be updated to reflect the growing amount of political advocacy online. “A re-examination of the Commission’s approach to the Internet and other emerging technologies is long overdue,” she wrote.

Ravel told me that she saw her statement as “moderate and somewhat innocuous,” but it sparked an outcry. Goodman condemned Ravel’s comments on Fox News, saying they raised the “specter of a government review board culling the Internet daily.” Conservatives and libertarians accused her of trying to censor the Internet. She was called a “disgusting fascist Nazi” and a “totalitarian thug.” One couple wrote to Ravel, who is Jewish, at her public email address: “Pravda would be proud of you, or Joseph Goebbels.” Another person wrote her: “Die, fascist, die!”

The extent of the animosity and vitriol, while not surprising to anyone who has spent time in the comments section of a news story, startled Ravel. She says it also made her redouble her efforts to draw more attention to the FEC’s dysfunction, especially after she was elected chair at the end of 2014. Now Chairwoman Ravel, she took aim at her own employer in The Washington Post and The New York Times. “People think the FEC is dysfunctional,” she told the Times. “It’s worse than dysfunctional.”

In February, she held her open hearing—the one she’d bargained with the Republicans for. It proved to be a bit of a spectacle: The Post called it “farcical”; Slate titled its story “Open Mic Disaster”; at one point, a Ron Paul intern took the mic and quoted Biblical verse declaring that “love of money is the root of all evil.” But Ravel says she was satisfied that the hearing gave people who don’t usually turn out for FEC meetings a chance to speak. “Frankly, I think that’s how it should be in every one of our hearings,” she told me. “One of the things that troubles me about the commission is we’re so insular that we don’t get any input from the public about matters important to the public.”

Ravel’s Republican colleagues dismiss her criticisms as unfounded. In a May 2015 op-ed in Politico, Goodman touted the number of bipartisan votes—93 percent of all votes, he said—that occurred in 2014, under his watch as chairman. He described the FEC as “remarkably functional for a bipartisan commission” and criticized Ravel’s confrontational approach. “Hurling tired, caricatured broadsides at my Republican colleagues and me, rather than acknowledging our honestly held legal and philosophical commitment to First Amendment values, debases the public debate and unnecessarily polarizes the agency,” he wrote.

Some of the criticism comes from her own side. Marc Elias, the Democratic election lawyer, doesn’t entirely disagree with Ravel’s broader critique that the FEC is gridlocked on major issues. But he does fault her for overlooking the fact that the commission still carries out the “basic blocking and tackling” of campaign-finance law—explaining regulations to a first-time candidate for office, helping a local county party fill out its paperwork, and so on. “It’s not like I have on rose-colored glasses,” Elias told me. “I think that the agency should be resolving and giving clear guidance on all aspects of the law. But I don’t think it’s fair to say the agency doesn’t perform any valuable function.”

I asked Ravel directly about Goodman’s rebuttal of her criticisms. She quibbled with his math about the commission’s voting record. (When her office crunched the 2014 statistics, the number of deadlocked votes was higher, at 22 percent.) But the crux of her criticism was that, while the FEC does settle plenty of minor cases, it’s both far too slow and often entirely unable to act on the most consequential issues. “It’s not like we deadlock on everything,” she told me. “But we deadlock on anything that is clearly a significant matter that is going to be relating to the presidential election, such as coordination, or whether the communications are for political purposes, therefore making the largest outside spenders political committees, or important disclosure cases.”

Fellow Democratic commissioner Ellen Weintraub echoed Ravel’s point about the deadlocks. “Looking at the numbers really understates the severity of the problem,” she told me. She added that she had tried to negotiate a deal with her fellow commissioners to clear the FEC’s backlog, in which the commission would be forced to vote on any open case once it reached the six-month mark. That proposal deadlocked 3-3.

I asked Weintraub what she thought about Ravel bashing the FEC in the pages of The New York Times. “I understand the frustration, I really do,” she told me. “But I think my job is to come in everyday and try to get something done around here.”

How would Ravel fix the agency? Is blowing the thing up and starting over with a new model—as suggested by some on the left—the best way? She told me she doesn’t think the FEC’s design is the problem. “I don’t object to a 3-3 composition to ensure there are checks on a commission that has the ability to embarrass you and affect your political career,” she says. “It’s totally understandable why Congress did that.” One thing that could be done, she suggests, is for President Obama to create a bipartisan blue-ribbon panel of impeccably credentialed people—who in turn would select commissioners with similarly impeccable credentials. Those commissioners could be retired generals or judges, she says, but they should all “believe in the mission of the agency and believe in law as applicable.”

Right now, five of the FEC’s six commissioners are serving past their expiration date—that is, their formal terms have ended, and the White House and Congress just haven’t acted to replace them. Ravel is the only commissioner still on an active term. She told me that if such a panel came along and recommended not five but six new commissioners, she’d happily step down and go back to California. (Indeed, though her term does not expire until 2017, she told me she doesn’t plan to stick around if she doesn’t feel like she’s making headway.)

In reality, of course, the blue-ribbon panel she proposes is unlikely to happen. Absent a Watergate-level outrage, things are only likely to grow more dysfunctional at the FEC—and more anarchic in the world of campaign finance. “The only way it’s really going to get changed is if there is sufficient public outcry, and I think it would require a massive scandal for that to happen,” says Anthony Herman, the former FEC general counsel. “I don’t think New York Times editorials are going to do the trick.”

THE TENSIONS AT the top of the FEC have apparently trickled down throughout the entire agency. The federal government recently released the results of a government-wide survey of federal employees’ satisfaction levels with their jobs. Of 163 staffers who responded to the survey, only 32 percent said that they were satisfied with the FEC’s work; even fewer, 30 percent, said they’d recommend working at the commission to other people. Overall, respondents gave the agency a woeful 43 out of 100 “global satisfaction” score—the third-worst among all small agencies across the federal government. The Center for Public Integrity, anonymously citing three rank-and-file FEC staffers, described the atmosphere inside the commission as “bad and getting worse.”

Two days after the survey’s release, right before lunchtime, Ravel and her staff set out two tables of tortilla chips, salsa, Mexican wedding cookies, and sodas, and strung up colorful decorations in the FEC’s first-floor public-records room, a bleak space lined with stacks of old press releases, paper campaign databases, and scores of microfilm racks next to microfilm readers. As a way to boost morale, Ravel had paid out of pocket for a mariachi band, Los Gallos Negros, to perform for the staff, and she invited everyone in the building (and me) to attend.

Employees trickled in, picking at the chips and sipping Diet Coke. On several occasions, Ravel and a few staff members danced together to the mariachis’ up-tempo numbers. All throughout, various employees kept approaching Ravel and thanking her for organizing the mixer. I could read on the faces of the staff a look of happy bewilderment at the sight of the mariachis plucking a guitarrón and squeezing an accordion under a framed wall poster about “Campaign Music” from American elections of yore.

I watched several of Ravel’s fellow commissioners drift through, including Steven Walther and Ellen Weintraub. Goodman showed up near the end and hung around for a while. Ravel and Weintraub made no attempt to chat with their Republican colleague, nor did Goodman try. The whole scene reminded me of high school, rival cliques avoiding each other in the cafeteria or the hallways between classes.

Ravel led much of the dancing at the party. Catching her breath at one point, she walked past me and said, “This is the most fun I’ve had since I got here.”