The Federal Election Campaign Act

In addition to the legislative acts highlighted above, the Taft-Hartley Act was adopted over the veto of US President Harry S. Truman in 1947. The law was aimed at curtailing the political actions and influence of labor unions in US federal elections. Specifically, the Act amended the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to include restrictions against political activities and protests undertaken by unions. More importantly, the law prohibited unions from utilizing their general funds to contribute directly to federal campaigns.

Overview of FECA

Despite the piecemeal attempts of Congress discussed above, the legislation was ill-equipped to deal with the advent of broadcast television during the 1950s and 1960s. Broadcast advertisement quickly became the new "arms race" in federal elections and the cost of campaigns increased exponentially, as did the need to fundraise from large corporate donors. In order to combat this latest explosion in corporate electoral spending, Congress created comprehensive reform legislation aimed at addressing several perceived shortcomings of the earlier legislation. Ultimately, there were also provisions which appealed to corporate interests. The legislation was titled the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA).

As originally passed in 1971, FECA included: (1) "sunshine" provisions that sought to ensure candidate disclosure of federal campaign contributions; (2) spending limitations on media advertisements (which were ultimately repealed); (3) public funding options for presidential campaigns that forego the use of private funds and agree to limit their spending to a pre-set amount; and (4) the basic legislative framework for the use of "separate segregated funds" by unions and corporations to support federal campaigns. Although the Taft-Hartley and Tillman Acts had the effect of explicitly banning direct campaign contributions by corporations and labor unions in federal elections, FECA carved out an exception through which these entities could use their general funds to establish and operate "separate segregated funds." Today, these entities are popularly referred to as PACs. Once created, PACs are able to solicit contributions on behalf of the separate segregated fund, the proceeds of which are used to contribute to federal candidates.

Legislative History of FECA

The presidential race of 1972 set the stage for a series of pointed amendments to FECA. In the months following the election, evidence was brought to light which indicated numerous electoral abuses by the administration of US President Richard Nixon. Most famous of these was the June 17, 1972, break-in at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. The Watergate break-in was ultimately connected to the Committee for the Re-Election of the President through the misuse of campaign funds. The scandal led to Nixon's resignation, but the revelation of widespread abuses in campaign finance convinced Congress to undertake comprehensive amendments in 1974 designed to give federal campaign finance restrictions true regulatory force.

The amendments to FECA established the Federal Election Commission (FEC) as an independent, regulatory agency in 1975. By finally creating an entity that would shoulder the burden of enforcing federal elections standards, Congress created an agency that assumed the administrative duties that had been shared by congressional officers and the US General Accounting Office (GAO) under the 1971 iteration of FECA. Specifically, the FEC was granted jurisdiction over civil enforcement matters, empowered to write regulations and tasked with independently monitoring FECA compliance. As mandated by these amendments, the FEC is composed of six commissioners who are appointed by the US president and confirmed by the US Senate. Each member serves a single, six-year term with two seats being subject to appointment every two years. By law, no more than three commissioners may be the member of the same political party. Additionally, at least four votes are required for any official FEC action.


The US Supreme Court has consistently ruled that campaign spending amounts to political speech, which is considered protected speech under the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Therefore, restrictions on federal election expenditures must survive strict scrutiny: the restrictions must serve a compelling government interest and be narrowly tailored to achieve the law's purpose. Given the impacts of FECA, there have been many challenges to its legitimacy since its passage. Various opinions have placed further "shine" on the law, with the first being the significant 1979 amendments to FECA in the wake of Buckley v. Valeo, more fully discussed below. However, in addition to the landmark ruling in Valeo, several other legal challenges have had a significant impact on the scope of FECA.

Following the Court's holding in Valeo, the Court next considered a challenge to FECA in the 1981 case of California Medical Association v. FEC. In California Medical Association, the Court found that FECA limitations on campaign contributions made by unincorporated associations were legitimate under both the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

However, in FEC v. National Conservative Political Action Committee, the Court ruled that restrictions on expenditures in presidential campaigns that prohibited any "political committee" not affiliated with an official political party were unconstitutional. Specifically, the Court found that FECA's definition of "political committee" was overbroad:

[A]ny committee, association, or organization (whether or not incorporated) which accepts contributions or makes expenditures for the purpose of influencing, or attempting to influence, the nomination or election of one or more individuals to Federal, State, or local elective public office.
However, although the Court ruled on FECA's restrictions with specific regard to presidential elections and unincorporated entities, the Court ultimately ordered the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to dismiss the case for lack of standing. Additionally, in FEC v. Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Inc., the Court struck down restrictions on corporate spending related to independent expenditures because it "infringes protected speech without a compelling justification for such infringement."

In their 1995 holding in Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. FEC, the Supreme Court ruled that FECA spending restrictions placed on political parties do not encompass independent expenditures that are made without coordination with any candidate. The case involved an advertisement run by the state Republican party attacking the Democratic Party generally, as opposed to an advertisement advocating for or against a specific candidate.

In February 2013, the US Supreme Court granted certiorari in a case challenging the limitation on individual contributions to political campaigns. In McCutcheon v. FEC [PDF], the Court will consider the FECA limitation on individual contributions on the basis that the rule is unconstitutional for lack of a sufficient governmental interest. If the Court found for McCutcheon, it would need to overturn the presumption articulated in Buckley v. Valeo that a sufficient governmental interest is enough to overcome First Amendment concerns when limiting speech in the context of campaign contributions.


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