Legal Library

Becker v. Federal Election Committee

Overview

Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and a group of voters sued the Federal Election Commission (FEC), charging that illegal corporate money is being used to finance the upcoming presidential debates. The Institute and the Boston law firm of Palmer & Dodge serve as co-counsel for the plaintiffs. A complaint filed in federal district court in Boston, Massachusetts, seeks to strike down FEC regulations which have allowed a small handful of U.S. corporations to contribute millions of dollars to help stage the debates. Plaintiffs have also filed for an injunction seeking to prevent the FEC from enforcing or implementing such regulations.

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), a non-profit corporation which organizes the presidential debates, announced in January 2000 that Anheuser-Busch will serve as one of the national financial sponsors this year, as well as the sole national sponsor of its October 17, 2000 debate in St. Louis, Missouri. The company will pay $550,000 to underwrite the St. Louis debate. Other corporate sponsors in prior presidential election years have included IBM, J.P. Morgan & Co., and the Philip Morris Companies. The lawsuit alleges that the CPD is continuing to raise and solicit additional corporate contributions for its debates, the first of which is scheduled for Boston on October 3, 2000.

Since 1907, federal law has barred corporations from making contributions or expenditures in connection with political campaigns for federal office. The law allows only three exceptions to this prohibition, covering internal corporate communications, internal voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns, and the administration of a corporate political action committee. The law does not create an exception for the financing of debates.

The Instutute argues that FEC regulations which allow corporate money to finance such events directly violate federal law. The lawsuit asks for a court order invalidating relevant FEC regulations. Such an order could result in a potential FEC enforcement action against the CPD, for financing its debates with illegal corporate money. The lawsuit could therefore re-open the question how the presidential debates this fall will be organized.

In addition to Nader and his campaign, the plaintiffs include actress Susan Sarandon, former television talk-show host Phil Donahue, and other voter-supporters of the Nader candidacy. The Association of State Green Parties and Green Party USA also serve as plaintiffs.