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FEC v. Wright


On November 12, 1991, a U.S. district court ordered James C. Wright, Jr., former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, to answer the FEC's questions in connection with an administrative complaint filed against him. The court also ordered Mr. Wright to pay the FEC's court costs.

The former Speaker appealed the judgment on January 9, 1992. However, he later filed a motion to dismiss the appeal as moot since he and the FEC had reached a settlement with respect to the administrative complaint (Matter Under Review (MUR) 2649). The FEC did not object to the motion, and on May 1, 1992, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit dismissed the appeal. (Civil Action No. 92-1033.)


In July 1988, Citizens for Reagan filed an administrative complaint alleging that Speaker Wright violated 2 U.S.C. §441i. That provision, now repealed, prohibited a federal officeholder from accepting more than a $2,000 honorarium for a speech, appearance or article. The complaint specifically alleged that Speaker Wright, during 1985 and 1986, accepted excessive honoraria disguised as proceeds from the sale of his book, Reflections of a Public Man. In January 1990, the Commission found reason to believe Mr. Wright had violated §441i and opened an investigation into the matter. When he refused to comply with an FEC order seeking answers to questions about his appearances and the sale of his book, the agency asked the district court to enforce the order.

District court decision

In its November 12, 1991, judgment, the court concluded that the FEC's order complied with a three-pronged test for validity: the investigation was for a lawful purpose; the information sought was relevant; and the agency's demand was reasonable. The court therefore ordered Mr. Wright to answer the FEC's questions. In reaching its decision, the court considered but rejected Mr. Wright's arguments, which challenged the FEC's authority to investigate his activities.

(Mr. Wright also filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that, with the repeal of §441i in August 1991, the FEC lost jurisdiction to bring the action. On October 16, 1991, for the reasons discussed below, the court denied Mr. Wright's motion.)

Speech or debate clause

Former Speaker Wright relied on the speech or debate clause in the Constitution for several of his arguments. The clause states that "for any Speech or Debate in either House, they [Senators or Representatives] shall not be questioned in any other Place." Article I, Section 6.

Mr. Wright contended that the clause nullified the FEC's authority to seek answers to questions on activities that took place when he was a House Member. The court, however, found that the clause did not apply to the FEC's questions, which concerned activities that occurred "outside, and away from, the House" and which were "totally unrelated to anything done in the course of the legislative process...."

Mr. Wright also argued that the FEC violated the clause because, in deciding to pursue an investigation, the agency relied on "speech or debate" material, namely, a report prepared by an outside counsel at the request of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct when that body was investigating the sale of the Speaker's book. The court rejected the argument, pointing out that the report lacked any "speech or debate" content but merely contained findings related to the Speaker's financial affairs. Moreover, the court said that the relevant findings in the report (i.e., his alleged circumvention of the honoraria limit) were "independent of anything that occurred in any kind of House proceeding."

The former Speaker again invoked the speech or debate clause with respect to his testimony before the House Committee, arguing that the clause immunized him from having to answer the FEC's questions on the same matters. However, because he testified before the Committee "in his capacity as a witness and not in his legislative capacity," the court found no merit to this argument

Finally, he argued that the Constitution's self-discipline clause, when read with the speech or debate clause, effectively allocated to the House the sole authority to enforce violations of the honorarium limit by Members. The self-discipline clause states, in part: "Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings [and] punish its Members for disorderly Behavior...." Article I, Section 5. The court rejected this argument for two reasons. First, it "is tantamount to a contention that the relevant provisions of the Act are unconstitutional." Second, it "fails to recognize that the standards of conduct and rules of enforcement found in the Act are, indeed, self-disciplinary rules-the combined votes of the two Houses created the statutory provisions in question."

Repeal of §441i

In another line of argument, Mr. Wright claimed that the FEC no longer had authority to investigate or enforce §441i because of recent legislation: The Ethics Reform Act of 1989 (effective January 1, 1991), which prohibited House Members from accepting honoraria and amended §441i to remove House Members from its scope; and the repeal of §441i later that year, on August 14.

The court first noted that the Ethics Reform Act effectively repealed §441i insofar as it applied to House Members. The court went on to point out that, if Congress had intended to eliminate the FEC's authority to enforce §441i violations occurring before the repeal, the legislation would have expressed that intent. "Thus, to this day," the court stated, "§441i is deemed to be in full force and effect as to any conduct of Wright occurring before the date of its repeal."

Source:   FEC RecordJuly 1992; FEC v. Wright, 777 F. Supp. 525 (D.C.N.D. Tex. 1991).