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Washington • The Federal Election Commission on Thursday rejected Sen. Mike Lee's request to lead a campaign committee that could accept checks with as many zeros as a donor cares to include.
In a unanimous vote, the commission reaffirmed that elected officials with their own political action committees must stick to a contribution limit of $5,000 per person per year and, at the same time, rebuffed the Utah Republican's argument that recent court rulings should allow him to run his own "super PAC," which could collect unlimited funds.
"The way the statute is crafted the contribution limit floats along with the incumbent politician, where he goes the contribution limit follows him essentially," Commissioner Donald McGahn said. "The statute couldn't be clearer."
The Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21, two groups that jointly opposed Lee's request, celebrated the decision.
"This commission is rarely unanimous on matters, but this question could only have one possible answer. That it was illegal to do this," said Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, which pushes for tougher campaign-finance laws. "We always believed this was an open and shut case."
Lee, who sought to be the first elected official with his own super PAC, said he was disappointed if not surprised.
"It is a ruling I disagree with," he said. "We are plowing new ground here, with no effective reliable way to predict what [the FEC] might do."
Lee said he would huddle with his attorney, Dan Backer during the next week and decide whether to press the issue in court. Backer indicated he would favor such a move.
"Litigation is a possible next step," Backer said, "to sort of chase down the constitutional issues."
Backer argued that court rulings creating super PACs in 2010 have made it clear that "independent expenditures" money spent supporting a candidate that isn't controlled by that candidate cannot lead to corruption and therefore shouldn't be limited.
"When there is no beneficial value to the candidate or officeholder associated with the leadership PAC," Backer said, "we just don't see it as causing actual or apparent quid pro quo corruption."
But commissioners, including McGhan, a leading conservative on the six-member panel, and Ellen Weintraub, a leading liberal, said Backer's definition of corruption is too narrow.
They contend Lee could benefit from collecting the money and backing other candidates, because it could lead to more political clout in the Senate. They also argued that politicians could be swayed by big-dollar contributions to support certain policies.
Lee wanted to add a new account to his Constitutional Conservatives Fund, which would collect hefty contributions to spend on candidates he endorsed. Court rulings and FEC decisions have allowed political surrogates, corporations, unions and others to lead these super PACs as long as they don't collaborate or directly coordinate their spending with candidates. But politicians can participate in super PAC fundraisers and solicit contributions as long as they don't pass the $5,000 threshold.
McGahn said he sympathized with this argument and said it "seems inherently unfair" that Lee could not run a super PAC but a "mega-corporation or a large union" could.
"The problem is," he added, "when you also have your finger on the pulse of policy of the U.S. government, Congress has said we are going to limit the amount of those funds you can raise."