Published in February 2004
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is the independent regulatory agency charged with administering and enforcing the federal campaign finance law. The FEC has jurisdiction over the financing of campaigns for the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate, the Presidency and the Vice Presidency.
Federal campaign finance law covers three broad subjects, which are described in this brochure:
This brochure provides general information only. The descriptions of the law and the Commission are not intended to be exhaustive.
As early as 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt recognized the need for campaign finance reform and called for legislation to ban corporate contributions for political purposes. In response, Congress enacted several statutes between 1907 and 1966 which, taken together, sought to:
In 1971, Congress consolidated its earlier reform efforts in the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), instituting more stringent disclosure requirements for federal candidates, political parties and political action committees (PACs). Still, without a central administrative authority, the campaign finance laws were difficult to enforce.
Following reports of serious financial abuses in the 1972 Presidential campaign, Congress amended the FECA in 1974 to set limits on contributions by individuals, political parties and PACs. The 1974 amendments also established an independent agency, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to enforce the law, facilitate disclosure and administer the public funding program. Congress made further amendments to the FECA in 1976 following a constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo; major amendments were also made in 1979 to streamline the disclosure process and expand the role of political parties.
The next set of major amendments came in the form of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA). Among other things, the BCRA banned national parties from raising or spending nonfederal funds (often called “soft money”), restricted so-called issue ads, increased the contribution limits and indexed certain limits for inflation.
Public funding of federal elections originally proposed by President Roosevelt in 1907 began to take shape in 1971 when Congress set up the income tax checkoff to provide for the financing of Presidential general election campaigns and national party conventions. Amendments to the Internal Revenue Code in 1974 established the matching fund program for Presidential primary campaigns.
The FEC opened its doors in 1975 and administered the first publicly
funded Presidential election in 1976.
The FEC has six voting members who serve staggered six-year terms. The Commissioners are appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate. No more than three Commissioners may belong to the same political party. The Commissioners elect two members each year to act as Chairman and Vice Chairman.
The Commission normally holds a public meeting each week. At this meeting, the Commissioners adopt new regulations, issue advisory opinions, approve audit reports concerning Presidential campaign committees, and take other actions to administer the campaign finance law.
In addition, the Commissioners meet regularly in closed sessions to
discuss pending enforcement actions, litigation and personnel matters.
The basic provisions of the FECA are described below.
Prohibited Contributions and Expenditures
In addition to the above prohibitions on contributions and expenditures in federal election campaigns, the FECA also prohibits foreign nationals, national banks and other federally chartered corporations from making contributions or expenditures in connection with state and local elections.
An independent expenditure is an expenditure for a communication which expressly advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate and which is made independently from the candidate's campaign. To be considered independent, the communication may not be made with the cooperation, consultation or concert with, or at the request or suggestion of, any candidate or his/her authorized committees or a political party, or any of their agents. While there is no limit on how much anyone may spend on an independent expenditure, the law does require persons making independent expenditures to report them and to disclose the sources of the funds they used. The public can review these reports at the FEC's Public Records Office or online.
Corporate and Union
Apart from supporting PACs, corporations and labor organizations may conduct other activities related to federal elections, within certain guidelines. For more information, call the FEC or consult 11 CFR Part 114.
Political Party Activity
Party committees may contribute funds directly to federal candidates, subject to the contribution limits. National and state party committees may make additional "coordinated expenditures," subject to limits, to help their nominees in general elections. Party committees may also make unlimited "independent expenditures" to support or oppose federal candidates, as described in the section above. National party committees, however, may not solicit, receive, direct, transfer, or spend nonfederal funds. Finally, while state and local party committees may spend unlimited amounts on certain grassroots activities specified in the law without affecting their other contribution and expenditure limits (for example, voter drives by volunteers in support of the party's Presidential nominees and the production of campaign materials for volunteer distribution), they must use only federal funds or “Levin funds” when they finance certain “Federal election activity.”
Party committees must register and file disclosure reports with the
FEC once their federal election activities exceed certain dollar thresholds
specified in the law.
Under the Internal Revenue Code, qualified Presidential candidates receive money from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, which is an account on the books of the U.S. Treasury.
The Fund is financed exclusively by a voluntary tax checkoff. By checking a box on their income tax returns, individual taxpayers may direct $3 of their tax to the Fund (up to $6 for joint filers). Checking the box does not increase the amount a taxpayer owes or reduce his or her refund; it merely directs that three (or six) dollars from the U.S. Treasury be used in Presidential elections. Checkoff funds may not be spent for other federal programs.
The funds are distributed under three programs:
Primary Matching Payments
To participate in the matching fund program, a candidate must demonstrate broad-based support by raising more than $5,000 in matchable contributions in each of 20 different states. Candidates must agree to use public funds only for campaign expenses, and they must comply with spending limits. Beginning with a $10 million base figure, the overall primary spending limit is adjusted each Presidential election year to reflect inflation. In 2000, the limit was $33.78 million.
General Election Grants
Nominees who accept the funds must agree not to raise private contributions (from individuals, PACs or party committees) and to limit their campaign expenditures to the amount of public funds they receive. They may use the funds only for campaign expenses.
A third party Presidential candidate may qualify for some public funds after the general election if he or she receives at least five percent of the popular vote.
Party Convention Grants
Other parties may also be eligible for partial public financing of
their nominating conventions, provided that their nominees received
at least five percent of the vote in the previous Presidential election.
The FEC administers the public funding program by determining which candidates are eligible to receive the funds. The Secretary of the Treasury makes the payments.
Committees receiving public funds must keep detailed records of their
financial activities. After the elections, the FEC audits each publicly
funded committee. If an audit reveals that a committee has exceeded
the spending limits or used public funds for impermissible purposes,
the committee must pay back an appropriate amount to the U.S. Treasury.
Public Records Office
Visitors may access the FEC's computer database, which contains helpful indexes on several types of campaign finance activities (large contributions, PAC contributions, etc.). The agency's database is also accessible from the Secretary of State's office in many state capitals.
2. Other Documents
3. How to Get Copies of Documents
Reporters inquiring about disclosure, enforcement actions and other aspects of the law should ask for the Press Office when calling or visiting the agency.
Individuals and organizations involved in an activity approved in an AO may rely on the AO without risk of enforcement action by the FEC, provided that they act in accordance with the AO's provisions.
The FEC web site provides a mechanism for searching and viewing AOs online.
Review of Reports
In some cases, FEC staff refer apparent violations or deficiencies in reporting to the Commission for enforcement action (see below), but reporting problems are often resolved by asking filers to voluntarily correct or clarify something in their reports. These communications are always on file in the FEC's Public Records Office or reports may be viewed online.
FEC staff may generate enforcement actions (called Matters Under Review, or MURs) in the course of reviewing the reports filed by committees. In addition, individuals and groups outside the agency may initiate MURs by filing complaints (see below). Other government agencies may also refer enforcement matters to the FEC.
If four of the six Commissioners vote to find reason to believe that a violation of the law has occurred, the Commission may investigate the matter. If the Commission decides that the investigation by the FEC's Office of General Counsel confirms that the law has been violated, the Commission tries to resolve the matter by reaching a conciliation agreement with the respondents. The agreement may require them to pay a civil penalty and take other remedial steps. If an agreement cannot be reached, however, the Commission may file suit against the appropriate persons in a U.S. District Court.
As required by law, the Commission keeps enforcement matters strictly confidential until they are concluded. Once the Commission has closed a MUR, the pertinent documents are placed on the public record.
Filing a Complaint
The complaint must be signed and contain the complainant's name and address. It must also be sworn to and notarized. A step-by-step description of the enforcement process is available in the brochure Filing a Complaint.
Alternative Dispute Resolution
Visit the FEC’s web site to access electronic versions of these and other FEC publications.
The FEC's Office of Election Administration (OEA) serves as a central exchange for information and research on issues related to the administration of federal elections on the state and local level.
The Help America Vote Act of 2002 created the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) and requires the transfer of the OEA and all of its assets to the new EAC. The FEC is currently in the process of formally transferring OEA to the new organization.
The FEC's depository library, administered by the Office of the General Counsel, is open to the public. The collection includes basic legal research sources and materials emphasizing campaign finance law.
Many election-related topics are not under the jurisdiction of the FEC. Some of these topics are listed below, for your convenience, along with the appropriate agency or officer to contact for more information. (Consult the FEC's Combined Federal/State Disclosure Directory for a more exhaustive list of topics and agencies.)
Voter Registration, Polling
Times and Places
Military personnel should contact the Defense Department's Federal Voting Assistance Program at 703/695-9330.
TV and Radio Broadcasting
Personal Finances of Congressional Candidates
For other tax-related questions, political committees should contact the Exempt Organizations Technical Division of the Internal Revenue Service at 877/829-5500 or visit their web site at http://www.irs.gov/polorgs.
Political Activity of Federal/D.C. Government Employees