POLITICS
06/30/2011 06:12 pm ET | Updated Aug 30, 2011

FEC Rules Congressmen Can't Solicit Unlimited Money For Super PACs

WASHINGTON -- In a surprising 6-0 vote, the Federal Election Commission rejected a request Thursday to allow federal elected officials to solicit unlimited funds for Super PACs.

The ruling came after conservative lawyer Jim Bopp announced the formation of the Republican Super PAC with the express intent of getting Republican lawmakers and party officials to raise unlimited funds. A letter advertising the launch stated that it "is designed to give national and state Republican political party committees and local, state and federal Republican candidates the ability to raise unlimited individual and corporate contributions for independent expenditures in support of federal and state candidates."

Subsequently, two Democratic Super PACs, Majority PAC and House Majority PAC, asked the FEC to rule on whether they could follow in Bopp's footsteps.

While waiting for the commission to rule, Democratic lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), sent out solicitations for the two Super PACs asking for contributions within the limits set by federal campaign finance laws. This raised further questions as to whether elected officials could solicit limited funds for Super PACs.

The commission ultimately decided that elected officials can raise funds from individuals and political committees limited by federal campaign finance laws, which go up to a $5,000 maximum, but cannot solicit for unlimited funds from individuals, corporations or unions.

The unanimous vote came as a surprise to some campaign finance watchers. The FEC has commonly deadlocked on both important and trivial matters in recent years. This, however, was one issue in which its members came together on a united front.

In a post to his Election Law blog, University of California-Irvine Professor Rick Hasen wrote, "I think Jim Bopp’s proposal was a bridge too far, even for the three FEC Commissioners.  Not only would there have been a public outcry, but I imagine the issue would have ended up in the courts, and created great uncertainty as the 2012 election season gets into full swing."

Campaign finance reformers hailed the ruling.

"The clear and unanimous ruling by the FEC today should put an end to any talk of federal candidates and officeholders, and national party officials, soliciting unlimited contributions for Super PACs.," Democracy 21's Fred Wertheimer said in a statement.

There is, however, still a potential for lawmaker solicitations to raise issues of corruption according to the Sunlight Foundation's Lisa Rosenberg.

"The FEC’s decision today opened the door for elected officials to ask corporate CEOs or union leaders for personal contributions of no more than $5,000. That is a limit in name only," Rosenberg said. "There is nothing preventing those donors from writing a check for far more than that amount, not only from their personal pocketbook but from their corporate or union treasuries as well. The nudge-nudge-wink-wink fundraiser is fully operational."

The ruling came in a quick hearing after the mob following comedian Stephen Colbert exited the building for his exultant press conference after he was approved to operate his own Super PAC.