Federal Election Commission v. National Conservative Political Action Committee

PETITIONER: Federal Election Commission
RESPONDENT: National Conservative Political Action Committee
LOCATION: Massachusetts Department of Education Bureau of Special Education Appeals

DOCKET NO.: 83-1032
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)

CITATION: 470 US 480 (1985)
ARGUED: Nov 28, 1984
DECIDED: Mar 18, 1985

Charles Nevett Steele - Argued the cause for the Federal Election Commission
Robert R. Sparks, Jr. - Argued the cause for the appellants
Steven B. Feirson - Argued the cause for the Democratic Party of the United States

Facts of the case

In 1975, the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) was accused by both the Democratic Party of the United States and the Federal Election Commission of violating the Federal Election Campaign Act. The Act stipulated that independent political action committees could not spend more than $1,000 to support the election of a presidential candidate. This case was decided together with Democratic Party v. NCPAC.


Did the law violate the NCPAC's First Amendment rights of free speech and association?

Media for Federal Election Commission v. National Conservative Political Action Committee

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 28, 1984 in Federal Election Commission v. National Conservative Political Action Committee

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments next in the Federal Election Commission against the National Conservative Political Action Committee and the related case.

Mr. Steele, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Charles Nevett Steele:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

These consolidated cases present two issues.

There is an initial jurisdictional issue, an issue that we have raised with regard to the second of the two cases, as to the standing of the Democratic Party and the jurisdiction under Section 9011(b) of the Act, their jurisdiction to bring it.

I consider that that issue has been covered thoroughly, the arguments on both sides, in our brief and the brief filed by the Democratic Party, and did not intend to address it at this point unless there are questions from the Court.

William H. Rehnquist:

I have one question, Mr. Steele.

Is your argument diminished at all in its force by the fact that the FEC brought a suit on its own in this case?

Charles Nevett Steele:

We do not consider that it is, because as we read the statute it seems to us that, though there is jurisdiction in the FEC to raise those issues, that the question in the statutory construction, that Congress did not intend private parties to be suing each other, is the same issue.

So we think that the two are severable.

With regard to the central question posed by this case, which we would say is the power of Congress to limit aggregations and expenditures of wealth by political committees, which are organizations whose purpose is to influence the outcome of federal elections.

Where presidential candidates have agreed to accept public funds in lieu of private financings for their campaigns, we would say that there is no limitation in the Constitution or particularly in the First Amendment on the power of Congress to limit those expenditures as it is done here.

This case arose because the Appellees, two political committees, asked the Commission, in light of this Court's decision in the 1981 term in Common Cause versus Schmitt, in which this Court affirmed the decision of the court in the District of Columbia by a four to four vote, the Appellees asked the Commission for an advisory opinion.

They asked for an advisory opinion to the effect that that decision made such expenditures in excess of the limitations of 9012(f)... were permitted under the statute.

The Commission answered in an advisory opinion that it did not think that the Court's decision in this case was dispositive of the constitutional issues, and reaffirmed in that advisory opinion its earlier opinion that Congress had in 9012(f) banned expenditures by political committees in amounts greater than $1,000 where presidential candidates have accepted the public financing.

There are really two reasons that we see why this statute did not violate the First Amendment.

First of all, Congress found that there was a great necessity to protect the integrity of the Government and the public perception of the integrity, the public confidence in the Government, from the corrosive effects of public financing.

And that was well documented to Congress.

William H. Rehnquist:

From the corrosive effects of public financing?

Charles Nevett Steele:

Private financing, excuse me.

I thought you made a Freudian slip.

Charles Nevett Steele:

I think I did.

And Congress had long considered these issues.

They had felt that a system in which they could have... set up public financing which would substitute for private financing, was one which could reduce those effects.

The second reason that we think that the First Amendment does not bar what Congress here has done is that Congress has very consciously and deliberately in this statute left ample scope for individual and group expression.

Turning first to the question of the purposes of the statute, of what Congress sought to achieve, we think that the record demonstrates that Congress knew what the effects would be where it had passed the public financing statute after years of debate, a statute which limited expenditures, which prohibited contributions to the candidates, and which created a system in which public financing was not merely a subsidy to the candidates of the two major parties, but was seen as only a substitute in which public financing was the major part of the package in which other forms of expenditures were limited.

But Congress knew that committees such as these would take over the role that had previously been held by large contributors, and it was one of the factors that was very prominent in the debate in front of Congress; indeed, as we have set it forth in our reply brief, the debate which went on not only in 1971, which went on way back into the history of these statutes in 1966 and '67, when there were long, long debates in the Senate.

But Congress estimated and looked at the question of whether, if you prohibited these private contributions and came forward with public financing, would there not be a situation where private financing would come forward making expenditures which were not in control of the candidate or in control of the candidates' parties, but which would be done by committees composed of the candidates' supporters, composed of people who were, as I say, in the business of raising and expending funds to influence the elections.

And Congress concluded that they were.

Congress concluded that in that situation you would have in effect a candidate who would be beholden to these large aggregations of private funds, a candidate whose campaign was limited to $40 million in this recent election under public financing, but who looked out there and saw that groups were available who could make those expenditures on his behalf, millions of dollars, campaigns that replace and support his campaign, that the effect would essentially be the same, that he would wind up in the election needing to woo that private money, needing to know that that private money would come forward on his behalf, and thus would be in the long run beholden to that private money in the same way that he would have been beholden in the situation where there were private contributions.