skip navigation
Here's how you know US flag signifying that this is a United States Federal Government website

An official website of the United States government

Here's how you know

Dot gov

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.


Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you've safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Common Cause v. FEC (83-2199)


On December 31, 1986, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia declared that the FEC's dismissal of an administrative complaint filed in 1980 by Common Cause was, in part, contrary to law. (Civil Action No. 83-2199.) The case was remanded to the FEC for action consistent with the court's opinion.

On March 15, 1988, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed the decision by the district court. (Common Cause v. FEC, Civil Action No. 87-5036). The appeals court found "entirely permissible" the interpretation of 2 U.S.C. §432(e)(4) that the FEC had applied to allegations contained in Common Cause's complaint. The appeals court also vacated the district court's order remanding the case to the Commission for a statement of reasons concerning the FEC's tie-vote dismissal of an allegation in the complaint and instructed the district court to enter an order dismissing the suit.


The original complaint alleged that five unauthorized political committees, which supported Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign committee, had violated the Act by using Reagan's name in their respective names. Furthermore, it was alleged that the committees involved in the complaint had impermissibly coordinated their "independent expenditures" with the official Reagan committee and, by doing so, had made contributions which exceeded the committees' limits. The five committees named in the complaint were: Americans for an Effective Presidency (AEP), Americans for Change (AFC), North Carolina Congressional Club1 (NCCC), Fund for a Conservative Majority (FCM) and National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC). After investigating the majority of the claims, the FEC voted to close the file regarding the administrative complaint and take no further action.

In its suit, filed August 1, 1983, Common Cause alleged that the FEC had wrongfully dismissed the complaint.

District court ruling

FEC determination to dismiss complaint on committees' use of candidate's name

The first legal issue addressed by the court was Common Cause's allegation that AFC, FCM and NCPAC violated the Act (2 U.S.C. §432(e)(4)) by using the name of a candidate, Ronald Reagan, in their respective committee names. Under the Act, only an authorized committee may use a candidate's name in its name. In this case, the committees involved were not authorized by any candidate. Evidence revealed that each committee had used the name "Reagan" in its respective fundraising project when soliciting funds and otherwise communicating with the public. The FEC argued that, because the official registered names of the committees did not contain Reagan's name and that the use of "Reagan" was merely for the purpose of identifying a particular fundraising project, the Act had not been violated.

In its opinion, the court noted that the name of the committee which is presented to the public for identification constitutes a "name" within the meaning of the Act and, therefore, the decision by the FEC to dismiss the complaint was contrary to law. Further, the court ordered the Commission to conform with its opinion within 30 days, pursuant to 2 U.S.C. §437g(a)(8)(c).

FEC determination not to investigate coordination

In the original administrative complaint, by a vote of 3-3, the FEC reached no conclusion as to whether there was reason to believe AEP and NCCC had coordinated their expenditures with the official Reagan campaign. (With regard to the other three committees, the Commission did find "reason to believe" and did conduct an investigation. See below.) This decision, which resulted in an automatic dismissal of this portion of the complaint, was contrary to the recommendation made by the FEC's General Counsel. Moreover, the Commission submitted no explanation for its decision.

The court stated that some explanation of the FEC's reasons for dismissing the complaint was warranted to enable the court to review the original determination on the issue. As a result, the court ruled that the FEC's action was arbitrary and capricious and required the agency to provide an explanation for its action within 30 days.

FEC determination to dismiss complaint on coordination

The final issue addressed by the court concerned Common Cause's allegation that the FEC, after investigating expenditures by AFC, FCM and NCPAC, acted contrary to law by dismissing the complaint. In the original complaint, it was alleged that all of the committees had "coordinated" their expenditures with those of the official Reagan campaign and had, thereby, made contributions-rather than independent expenditures. These contributions, according to Common Cause, exceeded the limitations contained in the Act, under 2 U.S.C. §441a(a). (There are no limits on independent expenditures.)

In its suit, Common Cause contended that a determination of coordination should be based on the "totality of circumstances." According to Common Cause, the FEC should have considered circumstances such as interlocking membership of persons at the policy-making level, prior alliances with the official committees and the use of common vendors by the committees. The FEC argued, however, that evidence of "direct coordination" was a necessary prerequisite to a determination of "impermissible coordination," and it found no evidence of direct coordination.

The court concluded that the FEC's interpretation of what constitutes "impermissible coordination" was not contrary to the law. Moreover, the court noted that, absent evidence of express intent or communication, "it is difficult to state exactly what combination of circumstances would prove that coordination had occurred." Therefore, in this issue, the court ruled that the FEC's action was proper.

Appeals court ruling

Committee names

In reversing the district court's ruling, a three-judge panel of the appeals court affirmed the FEC's interpretation of Section 432(e)(4), that is, that a political committee's "name" refers only to the official or formal name under which the committee must register. The court held that the "sparse legislative history of Section 432(e)(4) shows nothing definitive to undercut the Commission's consistent interpretation of this provision as applying only to the official name of a political committee." The court therefore concluded that, while Common Cause's interpretation of the provision was "not totally implausible," it did not "preclude the Commission's quite plausible alternative. There is, in short, a genuine ambiguity in Section 432(e)(4)'s text."

Further, considering the structure of the statute, the appeals court agreed with the FEC's argument that "name" should be similarly defined in Sections 432(e)(4) and 433(b)(1). (Section 433(b)(1) requires unauthorized committees to register one official name with the FEC.) The court held that these two provisions, along with the Act's disclaimer provision (Section 441d(a)), allowed the Commission "to establish a coherent means by which readers and potential contributors can find out the identity and status of those who are soliciting them."

In dissenting from the majority decision on the "name" issue, Judge Ruth B. Ginsburg argued that "Congress enacted Section 432(e)(4) to avoid public confusion and to increase public awareness of the sources of campaign messages.... Sensibly and purposively construed, the Section 432(e)(4) prohibition covers not only the formal, registered name of a political committee, but also the name the committee actually uses to identify itself in communications with the public purporting to solicit contributions for, or on behalf of, a candidate."

Deadlock vote

Finally, the appeals court reversed the district court's ruling that the FEC's deadlock vote dismissal of other allegations against two political committees must be remanded for a statement of reasons. The appeals court concluded that its recent ruling in Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) v. FEC (Civil Action No. 86-5661) was applicable to the circumstances of Common Cause's case. In DCCC v. FEC, the court found that the FEC's dismissal of an administrative complaint as the result of a deadlock vote was subject to judicial review. Consequently, the court could require the FEC to supply a statement of reasons for such dismissals.

Nevertheless, the court declined to "apply the precedent retroactively to this case, which arose before our DCCC decision...To do so, in this case at least, would be an exercise in futility and a waste of the Commission's resources." The court added, however, that it would "enforce the DCCC rule with respect to all Commission orders of dismissal based on deadlock votes that are contrary to General Counsel recommendations issued subsequent to our decision in that case."


[1] NCCC has subsequently become the National Congressional Club.

Source: FEC RecordMay 1988; February 1987. Common Cause v. FEC, 655 F. Supp. 619 (D.D.C. 1986) rev'd, 842 F.2d 436 (D.C. Cir. 1988).