In Federal Election Commission v. National Right to Work Committee, 459 U.S. 197 (1982), the Supreme Court approved limits on the ability of corporations or labor organizations to solicit political action committee (PAC) contributions.
National Right to Work Committee claimed it solicited PAC donations from ‘members,’ as required by law
Federal law allowed incorporated groups to establish PACs — called “separate segregated funds” in the law — using corporate treasury funds and to solicit PAC contributions from executives, shareholders, and members. The National Right to Work Committee had solicited contributions for its PAC from individuals who had previously given to the group’s general account, claiming that if a donor had responded favorably to the contact earlier then that donor “qualifies as a member.”
Circuit court upheld NRTWC’s ‘member’ definition under First Amendment
The District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that under prevailing First Amendment precedents — NAACP v. Button (1963) and Schaumburg v. Citizens for a Better Environment (1980) — the term member must be broadly construed to protect associational liberties. It therefore held that the National Right to Work Committee’s solicitations were legal. The Supreme Court reversed.
Supreme Court said NRTWC’s ‘member’ definition violated campaign finance law
Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for the Court, concluded that the associational rights claimed by the group “are overborne by the interests Congress has sought to protect in enacting” the statute (2 U.S.C. 441b) prohibiting general corporate expenditures in campaigns. Congress could pass laws ensuring that corporations could not use the special advantages that come with the corporate form to “incur political debts from legislators.”
Moreover, the restrictions protected against coercion of solicited individuals.
The Court reasoned that these rationales properly could be extended to allow the regulation of a corporation raising funds under the federal limits from donors with a record of making past gifts. The Court observed that this specific group did not recognize members in its bylaws, and that the group’s claim that its communications were only to its members would “virtually excise from the statute the restriction of solicitation to ‘members.’ “
”Members,” the Court concluded, should have “some relatively enduring and independently significant financial or organizational attachment” to a group.
After this opinion, the Federal Election Commission narrowed its regulatory definition of member in a 1993 rulemaking, so that fewer communications would fall within the exemption. But the D.C. Circuit rejected that stricter reading of the term in Chamber of Commerce v. Federal Election Commission (1995).
Allison Hayward is an elections and ethics attorney in California. She serves on the board of the Office of Congressional Ethics and on the California Fair Political Practices Commission. This article was originally published in 2009.