FEC advisory based on Citizens United gives labor unions, corporations no limit on donations for independent expenditures

Paul Conner Executive Editor
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For months, lawyers and constitutional scholars have debated the effects of Citizens United vs. FEC.

Now the Supreme Court’s monumental January decision that reversed a decade of campaign finance law is finally having an effect on the ground, and the results are clear — labor unions and corporations have more freedom to make political speech.

The Federal Election Commission issued two advisory opinions Thursday that will give greater freedom to corporations and labor unions in making contributions to political committees that are not tied to any particular party or candidate.

“It necessarily follows that corporations, labor organizations and political committees also may make unlimited contributions to organizations…that make only independent expenditures,” wrote the commission.

The FEC advised that Commonsense Ten, a non-connected political committee with Democratic leanings, may receive “unlimited contributions from individuals, political committees, corporations, and labor organizations for the purpose of making independent expenditures,” according to the advisory opinion.

Campaign finance cheat sheet

  • Independent expenditures: a communication expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate that is not made in cooperation with a candidate, a candidate’s authorized committee or a political party
  • Citizens United v. FEC: Supreme Court ruling in January that permits corporations and labor organizations to use treasury funds to make independent expenditures in connection with federal elections and to fund electioneering communications.

Commonsense Ten intends to make only independent expenditures, spending that is not coordinated with any party or candidate.

The FEC also wrote that the political committee created by the Club for Growth, a nonprofit promoting economic freedom, “may solicit and accept unlimited contributions from individuals in the general public, including contributions given for specific independent expenditures,” according to the advisory opinion.

The Club for Growth committee will not accept contributions from any political committee, candidate, labor organization, foreign national, government contractor or corporation.

Many conservatives praised the Citizens United decision as a victory for free speech, but Democrats quickly moved to limit the decision’s effects by passing the DISCLOSE Act through the House of Representatives.

“The FEC is not doing anything radical here,” said Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “They are merely putting in place what the Supreme Court has ruled.”

Not everyone agreed with the process of using an advisory opinion to make such a sweeping decision.

FEC Chairman Steven Walther dissented, arguing that no court has gone against current FEC rules that cap contributions to political committees at $5,000 annually or any contributions from corporations or labor organizations.

“No court…has invalidated these provisions of the Act or Commission regulations,” Walther wrote. “It is not best practice for the Commission to announce that a political committee may ignore a statutory provision duly enacted by Congress where no court has held that provision to be invalid.”

The FEC cited a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia that ruled that “contribution limits are unconstitutional” when applied to individuals’ donations.

“I think unions will take advantage of this more than corporations, since they are consistently among the top 20 spenders directly to candidates,” von Spakovsky said.