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Challenging the Illegal Corporate Funding of Partisan Presidential Debates: Becker et al v. FEC

During the 2000 campaign period, a number of televised presidential debates were held throughout the country. These debates were funded primarily through contributions from large corporations, despite laws that prohibit corporations from directly contributing money to political campaigns. The funds were channeled through a loophole created by the Federal Election Commission called the "Debate Regulations," which allows corporations to direct unlimited amounts of money towards candidate advertising in the form of candidate debates. Most corporations who play the money-in-politics game ensure access to government officials by donating money to the candidates of both major parties. Sponsorship of the presidential debates is no different.

The Institute challenged this loophole on behalf of the Green Party USA, the Association of State Green Parties, presidential candidate Ralph Nader, and citizens and voters including Phil Donahue and Susan Sarandon. NVRI teamed up with the Boston law firm Palmer & Dodge to file suit in federal district court in Massachusetts challenging the authority of the Federal Election Commission to adopt regulations that directly contravene Congress’ express prohibition of corporate contributions in federal campaigns.

In 1907, recognizing the obvious threat of direct corporate spending in connection with federal elections, Congress passed a law which remains a bedrock principle in the Federal Election Campaign Act, namely the prohibition of spending from corporate treasuries "in connection with" campaigns for federal office. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized the critical interests that support this prophylactic law, noting that corporations tilt the electoral playing field when funds amassed in the economic marketplace are used to influence and distort the marketplace of ideas. Despite the longstanding Congressional prohibition of direct corporate contributions, the Federal Election Commission adopted its Debate Regulations, creating a loophole through which corporations could channel unlimited amounts of money towards candidate advertising in the form of candidate debates.

Corporate spending to stage debates amounts to a direct "hard-money" contribution to participating candidates. These "debates" — which are highly scripted productions broadcast to a national, prime-time audience — are the chief form of presidential campaign advertising.

Shortly after the plaintiffs filed their Complaint, the FEC filed a motion to dismiss and the plaintiffs filed a motion for preliminary injunction, seeking to forestall any implementation of the FEC’s Debate Regulations. In September of 2000, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts upheld the standing of Ralph Nader and his related campaign organizations to bring this suit, but decided to defer to the FEC’s interpretation of the scope of the Federal Election Campaign Act. On an expedited appeal, the First Circuit affirmed, and the Supreme Court subsequently denied our petition for a writ of certiorari. The Becker case nevertheless helped highlight the dominance of corporate money in our presidential debate process, prompting substantial public discussion of this problem in print and broadcast media during the 2000 election campaign.

NVRI's legal briefs in Becker et al v. FEC.

Challenging Barriers: