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Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee v. FEC (86-2075)


On October 3, 1986, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia declared that the FEC's dismissal of an administrative complaint filed with the agency by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was contrary to law. (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee v. FEC; Civil Action No. 86-2075.) Pursuant to 2 U.S.C. Section 437g(a)(8)(C), the court directed the FEC to conform with its declaration within 30 days.

On October 23, 1987, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued an opinion which partially affirmed the district court decision. The appeals court affirmed the ruling that the FEC's dismissal of an administrative complaint resulting from a deadlock vote was subject to judicial review. However, since the appeals court lacked a Commission explanation for the dismissal, it rejected the district court's finding that the dismissal was contrary to law. Instead, the court remanded the suit to the district court with instructions that the district court, in turn, remand the suit to the Commissioners for an explanation of why they voted to dismiss the complaint.


The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), a national committee of the Democratic Party, filed its administrative complaint with the FEC on December 20, 1985. DCCC alleged that its Republican counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), violated the election law by failing to allocate $10,000 to NRCC's coordinated party spending limits for the reelection of Congressman Fernand St Germain in Rhode Island.[1] NRCC made the expenditures for mailings during 1985, which allegedly benefited the Republican House candidate in Rhode Island's First Congressional District. (Although the mailings were officially sponsored by the Rhode Island Citizens Group, NRCC did not deny that it had actually prepared and paid for the mailings.)

The mailings encouraged recipients to petition the House Ethics Committee to investigate newspaper charges that "Cong. St Germain had amassed a multimillion dollar personal fortune by using his public position to help wealthy investors." (Congressman St Germain was the Republican candidate's opponent for the Rhode Island House seat.)

The General Counsel recommended the Commission find reason to believe that the NRCC had violated the election law by failing to allocate and report the mailing expenses as coordinated party expenditures. However, on June 5, 1986, a majority of the Commissioners failed to find "reason to believe" the NRCC had violated the election law. Subsequently, by a unanimous vote, the Commissioners closed the file on the complaint.

Court ruling

Initially the court noted that, even though the Commissioners' dismissal of the complaint had resulted from their failure to obtain the votes required to find reason to believe the election law had been violated, the DCCC still had "the right [under the statute] to seek review of an adverse outcome."

On reviewing the DCCC's administrative complaint, the court found that the mailing addressed in FEC Advisory Opinion 1985-14 and those conducted by the NRCC in Rhode Island were similar. They both: "(1) were prepared by a national committee of a political party, (2) identified by name a specific Congressman of the opposing party, (3) criticized the record of the Congressman, and (4) were distributed to the constituents of the Congressman in question."

Furthermore, the court noted that "...[T]he Counsel found that the mailer's statement about ridding the government of corruption 'is a reference to an election in that one way to remove Congressman St Germain would be to vote him out of office.'"

The court therefore concluded that the "NRCC mailer conveys an 'electioneering message' as defined by the FEC's own advisory opinions and as interpreted by its General Counsel. Thus the FEC's dismissal of the plaintiff's complaint was 'contrary to law.'"

FEC appeal

On July 16, 1987, the FEC filed an appeal of the district court's decision with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (No. 86-5661). The FEC argued that "authoritative legislative history... demonstrate[d] that Section 437g(a)(8) [of the election law] was not intended to authorize judicial review" of the agency's dismissal of an administrative complaint which results from a deadlock vote on the merits of the complaint.[2] Moreover, the FEC contended that "...even apart from the controlling legislative history of Section 437g(a)(8), the courts have traditionally found agency deadlocks that do not resolve substantive issues to be inappropriate for judicial review." The FEC further argued that the district court should not have ruled on the merits of DCCC's administrative complaint but should have limited its role to determining whether the FEC's dismissal of the complaint "could be rationally justified." The FEC claimed that "the district court's failure to limit its review to this narrow question [ran] afoul of Congress' expressed intent not to 'work a transfer of prosecutorial discretion from the Commission to the courts...' and was therefore erroneous."

Appeals court ruling

The appeals court concurred with the district court's finding that the FEC's dismissal of the complaint in this case was subject to judicial review, but it rejected the lower court's ruling that the FEC's dismissal of the complaint was contrary to law.

The court found that "because Section 437g(a)(8)(A) provides broadly for court review of an FEC order dismissing a complaint...we resist confining the judicial check to cases in which... the Commission 'act[s] on the merits.'" The court further noted that the explanation of the provision in the legislative history occurred three years after Congress originally enacted the provision. However, the court limited its decision to the narrow circumstances presented in the case, "specifically a general counsel recommendation to pursue the complaint in fidelity to FEC precedent in point."

Furthermore, the appeals court did not agree with the district court's resolution of the merits of DCCC's administrative complaint. "Because we have no explanation why three Commissioners rejected or failed to follow the General Counsel's recommendation, we are unable to say whether reason or caprice determined the dismissal of DCCC's complaint," the court said. The court therefore held that "the Commission or the individual Commissioners should first be afforded an opportunity to say why DCCC's complaint was dismissed in spite of the FEC's General Counsel's recommendation." The case was remanded to the district court.


[1] Coordinated party expenditures are limited expenditures which may be made by party committees on behalf of federal candidates in general election campaigns. During 1986, based on the cost of living adjustment, a national party committee could spend up to $21,810 for each of its House candidates in Rhode Island. 2 U.S.C. §441a(d).

[2] "[I]f the Commission considers a case and is evenly divided as to whether to proceed, that not subject to review anymore than a similar prosecutorial decision by a U.S. attorney." See legislative history of 2 U.S.C. §437g(a)(8)(A) at 125 Cong. Rec. 36,754 (1979) (emphasis added), reprinted in FEC, Legislative History of the FECA Amendments of 1979, at 549.

Source: FEC RecordDecember 1987; November 1986; and July 1985. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee v. FEC, 645 F. Supp. 169 (D.D.C. 1986), aff'd in part and remanded, 831 F.2d 1131 (D.C. Cir. 1987).