Perhaps no citation has been more favored in Federal Election Commission (“FEC”) decisions over the past decade than Heckler v. Chaney, 470 U.S. 821 (1985), a Supreme Court decision that gives an agency broad discretion over which enforcement cases to pursue.  But there is a category of cases where the FEC is not employing Heckler when it should:  Cases where the constitutional support for the statute no longer exists.  See Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington v. Federal Election Commission, 993 F.3d 880, 884 (D.C. Cir. 2021) (“New Models”); see also Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington v. American Action Network, No. 18-CV-945, 2022 WL 612655, at *2 (D.D.C. Mar. 2, 2022) (holding that an FEC dismissal that was supported by “constitutional doubts” that “militate in favor of cautious exercise of our prosecutorial discretion” was judicially unreviewable under Chaney).

The FEC continues to pursue enforcement penalties in several categories of cases where there is almost no chance that a majority of the Supreme Court would find the statute constitutional.  This resembles a sort of regulatory Russian Roulette, where the agency pursues enforcement actions until it finds a respondent that is willing to fully litigate the constitutional issues, mostly likely in a case with plaintiff-friendly facts.  The risk for the agency is that when one of these cases eventually comes before the Supreme Court, the justices may use a hammer, rather than a scalpel, in striking down the law. 

In two areas in particular, the FEC should exercise its prosecutorial discretion to decline to pursue cases based on statutes and regulations of dubious constitutionality.   

A Person Cannot Corrupt His or Her Spouse With a Campaign Contribution, No Matter How Large. 

Currently, the FEC follows the Supreme Court’s decision in 1976 to rather tentatively uphold the application of the contribution limits to contributions from intimate family members in the same way as contributions from lobbyists and corporate and union PACs.  But the law has evolved, and the Supreme Court has since been clear that generally the only legitimate interest the contribution limits play is to prevent quid pro quo corruption or its appearance.  It is nearly impossible to argue that a spouse who gives a contribution over $2,900 to his or her candidate/spouse presents the risk of quid pro quo corruption. 

Continue Reading Picking Battles: The FEC and the Constitution

Trade associations, 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations, other outside groups that pay for political advertisements, and their donors now have more answers to long-running questions regarding when donations to these groups are publicly reportable.  After postponing consideration of the issue during its previous meeting, the Federal Election Commission (“FEC”) approved Wednesday an interim final rule on donor disclosure.  The interim rule amends the federal regulations that describe when outside groups that pay for independent expenditures — advertisements that expressly advocate the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate — must publicly disclose on FEC reports the names of their donors.  The amended rule will take effect 30 legislative days after the FEC transmits the new rule to Congress, which the FEC anticipates will be September 30, 2022.

The interim rule brings the FEC’s regulations into harmony with a 2018 court decision that invalidated a long-standing regulation, 11 C.F.R. § 109.10(e)(1)(vi), requiring outside groups to disclose only those donors who contributed at least $200 to the outside group “for the purpose of furthering the reported independent expenditure.”  The interim final rule strikes the regulation entirely.  However, the FEC added a note to 11 C.F.R. § 109.10(e)(1) that clarifies the remaining portions of the regulation and the relevant statute are still in effect.

In the wake of the 2018 decision, many questions remained about when these groups must disclose donor names.  The revised regulation itself was not meant to answer those questions; it was simply meant to harmonize regulations on the books with existing court decisions.  Some of these questions were answered by an unusual guidance document the Commission posted to its website after the 2018 decision.  That guidance, which remains in effect, provides that groups (other than political committees) that pay for independent expenditures must disclose the names of donors of over $200 who made contributions “earmarked for political purposes” during the reporting period.

But when is a contribution “earmarked for political purposes”?  If a donor provides funds for get-out-the-vote activities, is that donation “earmarked for political purposes”?  If a donor makes a contribution following a presentation from an outside group describing its political activities, is the donation reportable?  What about a donation intended to further a hard-hitting issue advertisement whose purpose, at least in part, is to defeat a particular candidate?  These questions are all left unaddressed in the interim final rule and the website guidance.

Continue Reading FEC Commissioners Issue New Guidance on Donor Disclosure for Groups Paying for Political Advertisements

Corporations, trade associations, non-profits, other organizations, and individuals face significant penalties and reputational harm if they violate state laws governing corporate and personal political activities, the registration of lobbyists, lobbying reporting, or the giving of gifts or items of value to government officials or employees. To help organizations and individuals comply with these rules, Covington

Late last week, the Supreme Court indicated that it intends to review a challenge by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) to federal limits on the use of post-election contributions to repay pre-election loans that candidates make to their own campaigns.  This follows an earlier three-judge district court decision that struck down those limits as unconstitutional under

With a growing chorus of support across the progressive landscape, the For the People Act of 2021 has emerged as a key legislative priority for congressional Democrats in the 117th Congress. Envisioned as a “transformational anti-corruption and clean elections reform package,” the bill would enact sweeping changes to federal election laws along with important changes