“It’s the Wild West out there in some ways,” said Kate A. Belinski, a former lawyer at the commission who now works on campaign finance at a law firm. Candidates and political groups are increasingly willing to push the limits, she said, and the F.E.C.’s inaction means that “there’s very little threat of getting caught.”
As a lawyer in Silicon Valley who went after ethics violators in California during her time there, Ms. Ravel brought to Washington both a reformer’s mentality and a tech-savvy background, and she has used Twitter and other media to try to attract young people and women to politics.
But her aggressive efforts have angered some Republicans, who charged that an F.E.C. hearing she scheduled for next week on challenges facing women in politics was not only outside the commission’s jurisdiction but a thinly veiled attempt to help the presidential bid of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Ms. Ravel called the accusations “crazy.”
Some disputes between the commissioners have gotten personal.
A disagreement over how to treat online political ads, for instance, turned tense when Ms. Ravel received anonymous online threats over charges that she was trying to “regulate” the Internet. She angrily confronted Mr. Goodman, charging that he had unfairly “fanned the flames” against her by mischaracterizing her position in an interview he did on Fox News. But Mr. Goodman said he had no regrets about challenging her position, which he saw as opening the door to greater regulation of Internet activities. Relations between the two have been difficult ever since.
Last fall, Ms. Ravel did join Republicans on the commission — and took some criticism from the left — in a 4-to-2 decision that eased rules growing out of the Citizens United decision and a related case. But she has had little success in persuading Republicans to vote with her on enforcement measures.
She said she was particularly frustrated that Republican commissioners would not support cases against four nonprofit groups — including Crossroads GPS, founded by Karl Rove — accused of improperly using their tax-exempt status for massive and well-financed political campaigns.
The commission has not always been so hamstrung. In 2006, it unanimously imposed major fines against high-profile groups — liberal and conservative — for breaking campaign finance laws two years earlier by misusing their tax-exempt status for political fund-raising and campaigning. The penalties put political groups on notice, and experts credited them with helping curb similar abuses in the 2008 campaign.
These days, the six commissioners hardly ever rule unanimously on major cases, or even on some of the most minor matters. Last month at an event commemorating the commission’s 40th anniversary, even the ceremony proved controversial. Democrats and Republicans skirmished over where to hold it, whom to include and even whether to serve bagels or doughnuts. In a rare compromise, they ended up serving both.
Standing in front of a montage of photos from the F.E.C.’s history, Ms. Ravel told staff members and guests that there was a “crisis” in public confidence, and she stressed the F.E.C.’s mandate for “enforcing the law.” But the ranking Republican, Matthew S. Petersen, made no mention of enforcement in his remarks a few minutes later, focusing instead on defending political speech under the First Amendment.
As guests mingled, Ms. Weintraub — the commission’s longest-serving member at 12 years — lamented to a reporter that the days when the panel could work together on important issues were essentially over.
She pointed to a former Republican commissioner standing nearby — Bradley A. Smith, who left the agency in 2005 — and said she used to be able to work with commissioners like him even when they disagreed on ideology.
Laughing, Mr. Smith assumed a fighting stance and yelled at Ms. Weintraub: “Let’s go right now, you speech-hating enemy of the First Amendment!”
A few feet away, Mr. Goodman was not laughing. As Ms. Weintraub condemned the F.E.C.’s inertia, he whispered a point-by-point rebuttal to show that things were not as bad as she made them sound.