The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is the independent regulatory
agency charged with administering and enforcing the federal campaign
finance law. The FEC has jurisdiction over the financing of campaigns
for the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate, the Presidency and the Vice Presidency.
Federal campaign finance law covers three broad subjects, which are
described in this brochure:
- Public disclosure of funds raised and spent to influence federal
- Restrictions on contributions and expenditures made to influence
federal elections; and
- The public financing of Presidential campaigns.
This brochure provides general information only. The descriptions of
the law and the Commission are not intended to be exhaustive.
For more information on the subjects discussed in
this brochure, call, write or visit:
Federal Election Commission
999 E Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20463
202/219-3336 (for the hearing impaired)
As early as 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt recognized the need
for campaign finance reform and called for legislation to ban corporate
contributions for political purposes. In response, Congress enacted
several statutes between 1907 and 1966 which, taken together, sought
- Limit the disproportionate influence of wealthy individuals and
special interest groups on the outcome of federal elections;
- Regulate spending in campaigns for federal office; and
- Deter abuses by mandating public disclosure of campaign finances.
In 1971, Congress consolidated its earlier reform efforts in the Federal
Election Campaign Act (FECA), instituting more stringent disclosure
requirements for federal candidates, political parties and political
action committees (PACs). Still, without a central administrative authority,
the campaign finance laws were difficult to enforce.
Following reports of serious financial abuses in the 1972 Presidential
campaign, Congress amended the FECA in 1974 to set limits on contributions
by individuals, political parties and PACs. The 1974 amendments also
established an independent agency, the Federal Election Commission (FEC)
to enforce the law, facilitate disclosure and administer the public
funding program. Congress made further amendments to the FECA in 1976
following a constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court case Buckley
v. Valeo; major amendments were also made in 1979 to streamline
the disclosure process and expand the role of political parties.
The next set of major amendments came in the form of the Bipartisan
Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA). Among other things, the BCRA
banned national parties from raising or spending nonfederal funds (often
called "soft money"), restricted so-called issue ads, increased the
contribution limits and indexed certain limits for inflation.
Public funding of federal elections originally proposed by President
Roosevelt in 1907 began to take shape in 1971 when Congress set up the
income tax checkoff to provide for the financing of Presidential general
election campaigns and national party conventions. Amendments to the
Internal Revenue Code in 1974 established the matching fund program
for Presidential primary campaigns.
The FEC opened its doors in 1975 and administered the first publicly
funded Presidential election in 1976.
The FEC has six voting members who serve staggered six-year terms.
The Commissioners are appointed by
the President with the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate. No more
than three Commissioners may belong to the same political party. The
Commissioners elect two members each year to act as Chairman and Vice
The Commission normally holds a public meeting each week. At this meeting,
the Commissioners adopt new regulations, issue advisory opinions, approve
audit reports concerning Presidential campaign committees, and take
other actions to administer the campaign finance law.
In addition, the Commissioners meet regularly in closed sessions to
discuss pending enforcement actions, litigation and personnel matters.
The Campaign Finance Law
The Federal Election Campaign
The basic provisions of the FECA are described below.
The FECA requires candidate committees, party committees and PACs
to file periodic reports disclosing the money they raise and spend.
Candidates must identify, for example, all PACs and party committees
that give them contributions, and they must identify individuals who
give them more than $200 in an election cycle. Additionally, they must
disclose expenditures exceeding $200 per election cycle to any individual
The FECA places limits on contributions by individuals and groups
to candidates, party committees and PACs. The chart below shows how
the limits apply to the various participants in federal elections. The chart below shows the specific contribution limits for
2017-2018. The chart is also available as a stand-alone HTML
or as a PDF table, suitable for printing.
Prohibited Contributions and Expenditures
The FECA places prohibitions on contributions and expenditures by
certain individuals and organizations. The following are prohibited
from making contributions or expenditures to influence federal elections:
- Labor organizations;
- Federal government contractors; and
- Foreign nationals.
Furthermore, with respect to federal elections:
- No one may make a contribution in another person's name.
- No one may make a contribution in cash of more than $100.
In addition to the above prohibitions on contributions and expenditures
in federal election campaigns, the FECA also prohibits foreign nationals,
national banks and other federally chartered corporations from making
contributions or expenditures in connection with state and local elections.
Under federal election law, an individual or group (such as a PAC)
may make unlimited "independent expenditures" in connection
with federal elections.
An independent expenditure is an expenditure for a communication which
expressly advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate
and which is made independently from the candidate's campaign. To be
considered independent, the communication may not be made with the cooperation,
consultation or concert with, or at the request or suggestion of, any
candidate or his/her authorized committees or a political party, or
any of their agents. While there is no limit on how much anyone
may spend on an independent expenditure, the law does require persons
making independent expenditures to report them and to disclose the sources
of the funds they used. The public can review
these reports at the FEC's Public Records Office.
Corporate and Union Activity
Although corporations and labor organizations may not make contributions
or expenditures in connection with federal elections, they may establish
PACs. Corporate and labor PACs raise voluntary contributions from a
restricted class of individuals and use those funds to support federal
candidates and political committees. Click
here to download the Campaign Guide for Corporations and Labor Organizations
Apart from supporting PACs, corporations and labor organizations may
conduct other activities related to federal elections, within certain
guidelines. For more information, call the FEC or consult 11
CFR Part 114.
Political Party Activity
Political parties are active in federal elections at the local, state
and national levels. Most party committees organized at the state and
national levels as well as some committees organized at the local level
are required to register with the FEC and file reports disclosing their
federal campaign activities.
Party committees may contribute funds directly to federal candidates,
subject to the contribution limits. National and state party committees
may make additional "coordinated expenditures," subject to
limits, to help their nominees in general elections. Party committees
may also make unlimited "independent expenditures" to support
or oppose federal candidates, as described in the section above.
National party committees, however, may not solicit, receive, direct,
transfer, or spend nonfederal funds. Finally, while state and
local party committees may spend unlimited amounts on certain grassroots
activities specified in the law without affecting their other contribution
and expenditure limits (for example, voter drives by volunteers in support
of the party's Presidential nominees and the production of campaign
materials for volunteer distribution), they must use only federal funds
or "Levin funds" when they finance certain "Federal election activity."
Party committees must register and file disclosure reports with the
FEC once their federal election activities exceed certain dollar thresholds
specified in the law.
The Presidential Election Campaign Fund
Under the Internal Revenue Code, qualified Presidential candidates
receive money from the Presidential Election
Campaign Fund, which is an account on the books of the U.S. Treasury.
The Fund is financed exclusively by a voluntary tax
checkoff. By checking a box on their income tax returns, individual
taxpayers may direct $3 of their tax to the Fund (up to $6 for joint
filers). Checking the box does not increase the amount a taxpayer owes
or reduce his or her refund; it merely directs that three (or six) dollars
from the U.S. Treasury be used in Presidential elections. Checkoff funds
may not be spent for other federal programs.
The funds are distributed under three programs:
Primary Matching Payments
Eligible candidates in the Presidential primaries may receive public
funds to match the private contributions they raise. While a candidate
may raise money from many different sources, only contributions from
individuals are matchable; contributions from PACs and party committees
are not. Furthermore, while an individual may give up to $2,700 to a
primary candidate, only the first $250 of that contribution is matchable.
To participate in the matching fund program, a candidate must demonstrate
broad-based support by raising more than $5,000 in matchable contributions
in each of 20 different states. Candidates must agree to use public
funds only for campaign expenses, and they must comply with spending
limits. Beginning with a $10 million base figure, the overall primary
spending limit is adjusted each Presidential election year to reflect
inflation. In 2012, the limit was $45.6 million.
General Election Grants
The Republican and Democratic candidates who win their parties' nominations
for President are each eligible to receive a grant to cover all the
expenses of their general election campaigns. The basic $20 million
grant is adjusted for inflation each Presidential election year. In
2012, the grant was $91.2 million.
Nominees who accept the funds must agree not to raise private contributions
(from individuals, PACs or party committees) and to limit their campaign
expenditures to the amount of public funds they receive. They may use
the funds only for campaign expenses.
A third party Presidential candidate may qualify for some public funds
after the general election if he or she receives at least five percent
of the popular vote.
Party Convention Grants
Each major political party may receive public funds to pay for its
national Presidential nominating convention. The statute sets the base
amount of the grant at $4 million for each party, and that amount is
adjusted for inflation each Presidential election year. In 2012, the
major parties each received $18.25 million.
Other parties may also be eligible for partial public financing of
their nominating conventions, provided that their nominees received
at least five percent of the vote in the previous Presidential election.
The FEC's Role
Administering the Public Funding Program
The FEC administers the public funding program
by determining which candidates are eligible to receive the funds. The
Secretary of the Treasury makes the payments.
Committees receiving public funds must keep detailed records of their
financial activities. After the elections, the FEC audits each publicly
funded committee. If an audit reveals that a committee has exceeded
the spending limits or used public funds for impermissible purposes,
the committee must pay back an appropriate amount to the U.S. Treasury.
1. Campaign Finance Materials
filed by registered political committees (such as candidates' campaigns,
party committees and PACs) are available for inspection and copying
in the FEC's Public Records Office. The Commission makes the reports
public within 48 hours after their receipt.
Visitors may access the FEC's computer database, which contains helpful
indexes on several types of campaign finance activities (large contributions,
PAC contributions, etc.). The agency's database is also accessible from
the Secretary of State's office in many state capitals.
2. Other Documents
In addition to campaign finance reports (dating back to 1972), the
Public Records Office makes available:
- Statistical summaries of reported campaign activities;
- FEC advisory opinions and advisory opinion requests;
- Files on closed enforcement actions;
- Personal financial statements filed by Presidential candidates;
- Audit reports;
- Rulemaking proposals and related documents;
- Commission meeting agenda items and other public documents.
3. How to Get Copies of Documents
The Public Records Office is open from 9 to 5 on weekdays (with extended
hours during filing periods). The Office operates as a library facility,
and staff members are on hand to assist visitors in locating documents
and using the computer. Most document requests may also be made by telephone
or mail or e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).
For the address and phone numbers click
here. Some documents are also available by fax via the FEC's
automated Faxline system. To access
the system, phone 202/501-3413.
The FEC's Press Office also promotes disclosure by issuing press
releases covering statistical information and the agency's activities.
Reporters inquiring about disclosure, enforcement actions and other
aspects of the law should ask for the Press Office when calling or visiting
Clarifying the Law
The FEC places a high priority on helping candidates and committees
understand and voluntarily comply with the law. To achieve this goal,
the Commission produces videotapes and free publications, and hosts
conferences in major
cities to educate campaign workers, PACs and party committees about
the law. In addition, anyone may obtain personal assistance by calling
the FEC's toll free number (800/424-9530), sending an e-mail to email@example.com
or by visiting the agency's Information Division.
The Commission clarifies the FECA and the public funding statutes
through regulations, codified in Title
11 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Copies of Title 11 are available
from the Commission free of charge.
The Commission issues written advisory opinions
(AOs) to persons seeking guidance on the application of the campaign
finance law to their own specific activities.
Individuals and organizations involved in an activity approved in an
AO may rely on the AO without risk of enforcement action by the FEC,
provided that they act in accordance with the AO's provisions.
Click here to search
and view AOs.
Enforcing the Law
Review of Reports
FEC staff review each report filed by federal candidates and committees
to ensure that they have complied with the disclosure requirements and
the limits and prohibitions on contributions.
In some cases, FEC staff refer apparent violations or deficiencies
in reporting to the Commission for enforcement action (see below), but
reporting problems are often resolved by asking filers to voluntarily
correct or clarify something in their reports. These communications
are always on file in the FEC's Public
The Commission has exclusive jurisdiction over the civil enforcement
of the federal campaign finance law.
FEC staff may generate enforcement actions (called Matters
Under Review, or MURs) in the course of reviewing the reports filed
by committees. In addition, individuals and groups outside the agency
may initiate MURs by filing complaints (see below). Other government
agencies may also refer enforcement matters to the FEC.
If four of the six Commissioners vote to find reason to believe that
a violation of the law has occurred, the Commission may investigate
the matter. If the Commission decides that the investigation by the
FEC's Office of General Counsel confirms that the law has been violated,
the Commission tries to resolve the matter by reaching a conciliation
agreement with the respondents. The agreement may require them to pay
a civil penalty and take other remedial steps. If an agreement cannot
be reached, however, the Commission may file suit against the appropriate
persons in a U.S. District Court.
As required by law, the Commission keeps enforcement matters strictly
confidential until they are concluded. Once the Commission has closed
a MUR, the pertinent documents
are placed on the public record.
Filing a Complaint
Anyone who believes that a violation of the law has occurred may file
a complaint with the FEC. The complaint should contain a statement of
facts related to the alleged violation and any supporting evidence available.
The complaint must be signed and contain the complainant's name and
address. It must also be sworn to and notarized. A step-by-step description
of the enforcement process is available in the brochure Filing
Administrative Fine Program
Fine Program streamlines the enforcement process for violations
involving the failure to file disclosure reports on time or at all.
Under the program, civil money penalties are assessed based on published
schedules of penalties that take into account the number of days a report
is late, the election sensitivity of the report, the amount of activity
disclosed on the report and the number of past violations (if any) by
Alternative Dispute Resolution
The FEC's Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Office promotes
compliance with the federal election law by encouraging settlements
outside the traditional enforcement or litigation processes. Additional
information about this program is available at this link.
How to Get More Information
Click here to access electronic
versions of these and other FEC publications.
The FEC's Office of Election Administration (OEA) serves as a central
exchange for information and research on issues related to the administration
of federal elections on the state and local level.
The Help America Vote Act of 2002 created the Election
Assistance Commission (EAC) and required the transfer of the OEA
and all of its assets to the new EAC.
Election Law Library
The FEC's depository library, administered by the Office of the General
Counsel, is open to the public. The collection includes basic legal
research sources and materials emphasizing campaign finance law.
Help from Other Agencies
Many election-related topics are not under the jurisdiction of the
FEC. Some of these topics are listed below, for your convenience, along
with the appropriate agency or officer to contact for more information.
(Consult the FEC's Combined
Federal/State Disclosure Directory for a more exhaustive list
of topics and agencies.)
Contact the Secretary of State in your state capital for information
on how to get your name or party listed on the ballot.
Contact your city or county clerk.
Contact your city or county clerk. If you are overseas at election
time, your nearest U.S. Consulate can help you get an absentee ballot.
Military personnel should contact the Defense Department's Federal
Voting Assistance Program at 703/695-9330.
If you believe your right to vote has been denied due to racial or
ethnic discrimination, contact the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil
Rights Division, at 202/307-2767.
If you believe that a federal election has been administered fraudulently,
contact the nearest branch of
the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
For information on how to challenge the results of a federal election,
contact the Secretary of State in your state capital.
TV and Radio Broadcasting
Contact the Media
Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) at 888/225-5322.
Contact the FCC's Telecommunications
Consumers Division at 202/418-7320.
Personal Finances of Congressional Candidates
get a taxpayer ID number for a political committee, call 800/TAX-FORM
For other tax-related questions, political committees should contact
Organizations Technical Division of the Internal Revenue Service
Political Activity of Federal/D.C. Government Employees
Contact the U.S.
Office of Special Counsel (Merit Systems Protection Board) at 800/85-HATCH
Return to top