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Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee v. FEC (96-2109)


On October 9, 1996, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed this case in an expedited decision prompted by the nearness of the November general election. The court said that it could not rule on how party committees may make expenditures that are "independent" because the FEC has not yet addressed the issue in a rulemaking or an advisory opinion.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) wanted the court to rule that their proposed expenditures qualified as "independent expenditures" and therefore were outside any spending limits. But the court said that the FEC "has been granted primary jurisdiction and therefore should be given an adequate opportunity to address the issues raised by Plaintiffs."


In a June 26, 1996, decision, the Supreme Court held that political parties were capable of making "independent expenditures," thus reversing the FEC's long-held presumption that party expenditures on behalf of candidates were "coordinated" with candidates and thus subject to contribution or expenditure limits. Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. FEC, 116 S. Ct. 2309 (1996).

In July, the DSCC and the DCCC asked the FEC to revise agency regulations in time for the November election to explain how party committees, with their traditionally close contacts with candidates, could make independent expenditures. The Commission agreed to conduct the rulemaking but said it could not revise the rules in time for the 1996 election cycle.

That same month the committees also formally requested an FEC advisory opinion (AOR 1996-30) to answer questions on their proposed independent expenditures, such as whether past contacts between party staff and candidates' campaign staff would compromise the independence of the expenditures, or whether the party committees could erect a "Chinese Wall" to segregate staff chosen to work on independent expenditure campaigns.

An advisory opinion drafted by the FEC's Office of General Counsel and voted on in late August failed to win approval by the required four-vote majority of Commissioners.

In September, the plaintiffs filed suit asking the court to find that their proposed expenditures would qualify as independent expenditures. The committees claimed that they were forced to file suit because the FEC's failure to issue formal guidance would expose them to possible penalties under the Federal Election Campaign Act should they pursue their independent expenditure program.

Court decision

The court ruled that the plaintiffs had standing to file suit because they suffered injury: "the chilling of First Amendment rights" and "a creditable threat of prosecution."

However, the court said, it was unable to rule on the substance of the case because the FEC had not yet taken any final agency action that could be reviewed by a court. The court said that the plaintiffs "are asking the Court to 'step into the Commission's shoes' and issue the advisory opinion and final rules which it was unable to provide." The court noted that Congress intended the FEC to interpret the statute first, before the courts.

The court therefore granted the FEC's motion to dismiss the case.

The DSCC and DCCC subsequently asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to review the lower court's judgment on an expedited basis so the case could be resolved before the election. That court, however, on October 11, 1996, denied the request to expedite the appeal.

Source:   FEC Record November 1996