Plaintiff, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ("DSCC"), disputes the dismissal by the Federal Election Commission's ("FEC" or "Commission") of a complaint filed by plaintiff against the National Republican Senatorial Committee ("NRSC"). Plaintiff has requested both declaratory and injunctive relief; it asks the Court to declare that the Commission's dismissal of the DSCC's complaint was contrary to law, and to direct the Commission to initiate enforcement proceedings against the NRSC. Before the Court are the parties' cross motions for summary judgment.
The central dispute in this case is whether the NRSC violated the Federal Election Campaign Act ("FECA" or "the Act"), 2 U.S.C. § 431 et seq., by exceeding FEC spending limits during the 1992 United States Senate race in Georgia.
The FEC enforces spending limits for federal elections. Any person who believes that the Act has been violated may file an administrative complaint with the Commission. After receiving an answer from the respondent, the Commission's General Counsel prepares a report for the Commission, and recommends whether the Commission should find "reason to believe" that the Act has been violated. A vote of at least four commissioners is necessary to find a "reason to believe." If the Commission does so find, it initiates formal enforcement proceedings. 2 U.S.C. § 437g(a).
For the 1992 U.S. Senate race in Georgia, both the NRSC and the DSCC were permitted to contribute $ 535,608 in support of their respective party's candidates. Prior to November 3, the scheduled general election date, the NRSC had exhausted its spending authority, while the DSCC still had $ 200,000 remaining. On November 3, Democrat Wyche Fowler, the incumbent, received 49% of the vote. Republican Paul Coverdell received 48%. An independent candidate received the remaining 3%.
Georgia's statute governing the election of United States Senators provides that, if no one candidate receives an absolute majority, a second election is to be held between the candidates receiving the two highest numbers of votes. O.G.C.A. § 21-2-501. Because no candidate received an absolute majority in the particular election at issue here, a second election was scheduled for November 24, and a question thus arose as to how much the committees could contribute to their particular candidate's campaign with respect to this second election. Under Commission rules, if the November 24 election was a "general election," each committee would be permitted a new full expenditure of $ 535,608. If the November 24 election was a "runoff election," each committee would be permitted to spend only what it had left over from the November 3 election.
On November 6, the NRSC requested an advisory opinion from the Commission as to how to classify the November 24 election. The General Counsel, in a proposed draft response, determined that the November 24 election was not a general election. (This, of course, would have had the effect of denying the NRSC request for a second, or new, $ 535,608 expenditure.) However, the Commission itself, which is composed of three members from each political party, split along party lines over whether to adopt the General Counsel's proposal. Since four votes are required to issue an advisory opinion, the Commission took no action. The NRSC thereafter spent almost the full amount permitted for a general election. The DSCC, on the other hand, limited its expenditures to the roughly $ 200,000 it had remaining from its expenditures to the roughly $ 200,000 it had remaining from its expenditures allowed for the November 3 election; it spent no "general election" funds. Paul Coverdell, the Republician candidate, won the November 24 election, and became the United States Senator for Georgia.
On November 19, 1992, the DSCC filed a complaint with the Commission, alleging that the NRSC had violated the Act by exceeding the permitted spending limits for the November 24 election. The General Counsel, adhering to his previous position, recommended that the Commission find reason to believe that the NRSC had violated the Act. This recommendation was made on the basis that the November 24 election was a runoff election, not a general election, and that the committees could therefore spend only the remainder of the funds left over from the November 3 election. The Commission once again split along party lines. Again, because four votes are required for the Commission to find a "reason to believe" that the Act has been violated, it dismissed the complaint. It is that dismissal that the DSCC has brought before this Court in this action.
The standard of review for determining whether the Commission improperly dismissed the DSCC's complaint is whether the body acted in a manner that is "contrary to law." 2 U.S.C. § 437g(a)(8)(C). A Commission decision is contrary to law if its dismissal (1) rests on an impermissible interpretation of the Act, or (2) was arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion. Orloski v. Federal Election Commission, 254 U.S. App. D.C. 111, 795 F.2d 156, 161 (D.C. Cir. 1986). A judicial determination of whether the Commission's interpretation of the Act was impermissible is highly deferential to the agency. "If the meaning of the statute is not clear, a reviewing court should accord deference to the Commission's rationale." Federal Election Commission v. National Republican Senatorial Committee, 296 U.S. App. D.C. 190, 966 F.2d 1471, 1476 (D.C. Cir. 1992).
In this case, the Commission's inability to find a reason to believe that the NRSC violated the Act is the equivalent of a finding that the November 24 election was a general election.
The parties do not contest that, if that election was a runoff and not a general election, the NRSC exceeded the spending limits. The question, then, is whether the classification of the November 24 election as a general election, and not a runoff, rests on a permissible interpretation of the Act.
FEC regulations define a general election as follows.
(1) an election held in even numbered years on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November is a general election. (2) An election which is held to fill a vacancy in a Federal office (i.e., a special election) and which is intended to result in the final selection of a single individual to the office at stake is a general election.
11 C.F.R. § 100.2(b). A runoff election is defined as follows.
Runoff election means the election which meets either of the following conditions: . . . (2) The election held after a general election and prescribed by applicable state law as the means for deciding which candidate should be certified as the officeholder elect, is a runoff election.