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On February 28, 1996, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in GOPAC's favor and dismissed this case. The FEC had asked the court to find that, under the Federal Election Campaign Act, GOPAC first qualified as a political committee in 1989 and as such was required to file and register with the FEC since then. GOPAC argued that it did not qualify as a political committee under the Act until 1991, at which time it did register with the FEC.

The court ruled that an organization's status as a political committee under the Act is properly determined by applying the "major purpose" test to narrow the statutory definition, which states that a political committee is any group that receives at least $1,000 in contributions or makes at least $1,000 in expenditures to support federal candidates. According to the court, the major purpose test serves as a bright line that separates groups that are political committees from those that are not; under the major purpose test, a group is a political committee if its major purpose is to elect a particular candidate or candidates for federal office.

FEC administrative activity

Following an investigation into an administrative complaint filed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in September 1990, the FEC found probable cause to believe that in 1989 GOPAC qualified as a political committee under the Act, and that, until 1991, GOPAC failed to abide by the Act's registration and disclosure requirements for political committees. This probable cause finding was based on a GOPAC solicitation that urged contributors to help "break the Democrats' stronghold on power" in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The FEC was unable to reach a conciliation agreement with GOPAC and filed this lawsuit on April 14, 1994. The FEC asked the court to impose civil penalties on GOPAC and to require GOPAC to file 1989 and 1990 disclosure reports.

Factual background

In 1989, GOPAC's stated mission was: "to create and disseminate the doctrine which defines a caring, humanitarian, reform Republican Party in such a way as to elect candidates, capture the U.S. House of Representatives and become a governing majority at every level of government."

The court said that although this mission statement had as its ultimate objective the election of Republican candidates to the U.S. House of Representatives, GOPAC's direct support in 1989 and 1990 was for state and local candidates and not for any federal candidates.

GOPAC did develop and distribute materials espousing a set of ideas for Republican candidates, including federal candidates. GOPAC also targeted cash contributions to local and state candidates in areas where it hoped this support might indirectly influence the election of other candidates, including federal candidates, on the Republican ticket.

GOPAC also provided assistance to Congressman Newt Gingrich in 1989 and 1990, but the court said there was no material evidence that Congressman Gingrich used these funds for his 1992 reelection campaign as opposed to his work as GOPAC Chairman.

Legal analysis

The Act defines a political committee as any group that receives at least $1,000 in contributions or makes at least $1,000 in expenditures for the purpose of influencing a federal election. 2 U.S.C. §431(4)(A).

In Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court, citing First Amendment concerns, ruled that the definition of political committee "need only encompass organizations that are under the control of a candidate or the major purpose of which is the nomination or election of a candidate."

The FEC contended that the Buckley decision did not require a group to provide direct support to a specific federal candidate in order for the group to be considered a political committee under the major purpose test. Instead, the FEC argued that Buckley's definition of "political committee" encompassed groups organized to engage in partisan electoral politics or electoral activity. Accordingly, the FEC argued that if GOPAC's sole purpose was to advocate the election of Republicans as a class of candidates, then the purpose of its activities was by definition campaign related. and if its expenditures or contributions for these campaign-related activities exceeded $1,000, it qualified as a political committee under the Act.

The court disagreed because it found the term "partisan electoral politics" to be vague and therefore to chill the First Amendment rights of issue advocacy groups. The court quoted the Buckley decision: " . . . the distinction between discussion of issues and candidates and advocacy of election or defeat of candidates may often dissolve in practical application."

The court reasoned that a bright-line test was therefore required, so that contributors and committee treasurers could easily conform their conduct with the law and so that the FEC could easily identify violations and take quick and decisive action. The court concluded that the appropriate bright line was provided by limiting the definition of political committee to groups whose major purpose was the election of a particular federal candidate or candidates. The court said that this test drew two relatively clear lines: it distinguished between federal and nonfederal candidates; and it distinguished between groups that support particular federal candidates and those that lend general party support.

The court noted that the FEC conceded that there was no evidence of direct GOPAC support to federal candidates in 1989 and 1990. GOPAC's support appeared to have been limited to state and local candidates, to general nationwide dissemination of ideological materials and to Congressman Gingrich in his role as GOPAC chairman and not as a federal candidate. The court therefore ruled in GOPAC's favor and dismissed the FEC's complaint.

Source:   FEC Record — April 1996. FEC v. GOPAC, 917 F. Supp. 851 (D.D.C. 1996).