Members of Congress won't be able to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on behalf of other candidates they support, the Federal Election Commission said Thursday.
In unanimously approving an opinion, FEC commissioners rejected a request from a political action committee controlled by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, to allow his leadership PAC to spend unlimited amounts of money on races other than Lee's own.
In several cases in recent years, the Supreme Court and lower circuits have allowed independent groups to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on independent expenditures. Those so-called super PACs are prohibited from coordinating with candidates; the FEC has also said federal candidates may only solicit amounts up to $5,000 -- the legal limit for ordinary PACs -- when they fundraise for super PACs.
Lee's leadership PAC, the Constitutional Conservatives Fund PA challenged the notion that a federal officeholder could not operate their own super PAC. Lee's attorneys asked for permission to open a separate account expressly for independent expenditures, so long as candidates who benefit from those expenditures don't participate in raising the funds themselves.
"We don't believe there is a contribution limit on [independent expenditure] activity anymore," said Dan Backer, the attorney for Lee's Constitutional Conservatives Fund PAC. But commissioners reacted skeptically. Republican member Don McGahn, perhaps the most vocal opponent of strict campaign finance regulations, said the laws governing contributions to any entity controlled by a federal candidate prohibit unlimited donations.
"Wherever he goes, the contribution limit follows him, essentially," McGahn said.
Backer told National Journal he believes the issue will eventually end up in federal court, the latest salvo opponents of campaign finance regulation have launched at McCain-Feingold and other reform measures.
McGahn acknowledged the probability of a court case during Thursday's hearing.
"I can see a court challenge, maybe equal protection. 'Everyone else gets to do unlimited [independent expenditures]. Why can't Sen. Mike Lee do IEs?'" he said.