RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Those looking for a story about how Ms. or Mr. Smith goes to Washington and fixes everything - well, they'll be disappointed in this one. Democrat Ann Ravel has led the Federal Election Commission for the past year. That's the agency that enforces campaign finance laws. And as she steps aside as chair, Ravel spoke to NPR's Peter Overby about leading what she calls a broken agency.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Unlike Mr. Smith in the movie, Ann Ravel didn't come to Washington as a neophyte. A Californian, she's been a government lawyer for years. In 2013, the California Campaign Finance Agency cracked down on some prominent nonprofit groups. She was head of the agency.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
ANN RAVEL: We're here to announce today that a record fine for a campaign violation in the state of California of $1 million has been levied against a dark money network of political nonprofits.
OVERBY: Two weeks after that, Ravel arrived at the FEC.
RAVEL: I actually realized after about a week or two that what was being done was essentially nothing.
OVERBY: The commission has three Republicans and three Democrats. Party line votes are routine. In an interview on the day of her final meeting as chair, Ravel said she began at the FEC looking for ways the two sides could work together.
RAVEL: But obviously I was naive.
OVERBY: In 2014, Ravel tried crossing the partisan divide. She voted with the Republicans to dismiss 20 enforcement cases, also defying the set rules supporting the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision.
RAVEL: One, I thought that it was the right thing to do.
OVERBY: And second, she wanted to change the atmosphere.
RAVEL: To create some goodwill in the hopes that there would be some willingness to work with me on issues that I care about, such as disclosure.
OVERBY: Even Citizens United praises disclosure - that's the case that unleashed corporate and union money in elections - but the FEC's Republicans say Congress makes the law. Here's Republican Commissioner Matthew Petersen at this month's meeting. He's the incoming chairman.
MATTHEW PETERSEN: I don't view my role as a commissioner to feel like I step into the void when Congress doesn't act.
OVERBY: Meanwhile, Ravel held a day-long hearing for the public, something unheard of at the agency. On a small listening tour, in op-eds and speeches, she said political money affects America's daily lives more than you'd think, and the agency is broken. Back at the FEC, they couldn't even agree on bagels or donuts for an office celebration, so dealing with a four-year backlog of enforcement cases - fat chance. Democrats want to use existing laws. Republicans want to wait for new challenges to the laws to be settled. At the September meeting, Republican Caroline Hunter said Democrats used to stall cases, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF FEC MEETING)
CAROLINE HUNTER: The difference is we have legitimate reasons why we're waiting on a couple of matters, and I just explained them to you. And so don't - please don't sit there and just forget history and just, you know, go on and on about how it's just the Republicans fault when it's not.
OVERBY: Petersen, the incoming chair, said in an interview that the commission was set up not to be efficient, but to keep Americans safe.
PETERSEN: Safe from partisan enforcement of the law and safe from an overly aggressive interpretation enforcement that could infringe upon First-Amendment-protected activities.
OVERBY: Ravel talks about a session she had last summer with House and Senate interns. At the end...
RAVEL: A number of these kids raised their hands and said, I don't vote. Why bother? I mean, if those kids aren't engaged in these issues, I want to continue to try to do something to change that.
OVERBY: Ravel's term at the FEC runs for one more year. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.