Why Poke a Stick at State Political Watchdog?

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The chair of the state's Fair Political Practices Commission is taking some unfair heat.

Chairwoman Ann Ravel came under criticism in a recent LA Times story that claimed the body, which polices California's political campaigns, "had retreated from its aggressive approach to ethics enforcement."

Ravel and the FPPC have pushed back, citing this assessment of the commission and its chairwoman by Mike Genest, a Republican and former director of finance, in the Bakersfield Californian.

The controversy is strange, because the commission has never been known as an aggressive prosecutor of big political wrongdoers; to the contrary, the commission has long been accused of being toothless and focused on minor clerical oversights and other small crimes, while letting California's biggest political players do as they wish.

The real question is whether Ravel is changing that.

From my perspective, it's too soon to know. Ravel was appointed just last year. She has tried to focus more on big violations and on disclosure of independent expenditures and superPAC-style committees. Time will tell if these changes are effective.

But it's a cheap shot at worst, and premature at best, to suggest that the FPPC is stepping away from enforcement; it's merely shifting emphasis.

The controversy also obscures the bigger questions about the entire regime of campaign regulation in California.

This regime is badly outdated, having been designed well before the Internet or social media. And this regime has never been good at keeping big money out of California politics.

The state needs a big debate about campaign regulation, and about politics in general.

I, for one, think California would be wise to deregulate some aspects of its system -- and free political parties in particular to do more things and take on a central role in state political life, primarily as a way to engage more citizens in politics and policymaking. California's political history is one of anti-politics, where we reduce the role of parties, and citizens, in decisionmaking; that has produced a broken governing and budget system. If we want to change that, how should we change the way we police campaigns?

That's a big question and a big discussion. This controversy over the FPPC and its enforcement emphasis is small and almost meaningless, given the challenges the state faces.

Let us know what you think. Comment below, send us your thoughts via Twitter @PropZero or add your comment to our Facebook page.

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