WASHINGTON -- The Federal Election Commission is challenging an election-law exception claimed by the National Abortion Rights Action League, which, in recent months, has funneled more than $250,000 to support candidates in hotly contested U.S. Senate races in Iowa and North Carolina.
Ironically, the exception allowing non-profit corporations to spend money for federal candidates was created in 1986 by a U.S. Supreme Court decision won by an anti-abortion group seeking to spend money on activities supporting anti-abortion candidates.
NARAL, which supports abortion rights, has an affiliated political action committee it generally uses to make independent expenditures to support or oppose candidates. But it didn't use that PAC in giving more than $180,000 to support the campaign of Democrat Harvey Gantt against Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., an election contest that is being closely watched nationwide.
NARAL also bypassed its PAC to spend more than $70,000 in Iowa, where Republican Representative Tom Tauke, an abortion opponent like Mr. Helms, is running for the Senate seat held by Democrat Tom Harkin. The money went for activities such as polling and news media consultants.
NARAL has 450,000 members, each of whom contributes $20 or more per year for membership -- or about $9 million per year. NARAL's PAC had $198,417 on hand as of Oct. 17, according to FEC reports.
In the 1970s, Congress formally recognized PACs as a type of organization that could contribute to political races. The PACs, which get most of their money from voluntary contributions, may contribute $5,000 per candidate per race. They may also spend unlimited amounts in a category called "independent expenditures" -- spending in support of or opposition to a candidate that isn't associated with a campaign.
In 1986, in a case involving the Massachusetts Citizens for Life, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a special kind of corporation -- non-profit advocacy groups -- could make independent campaign expenditures.
Under federal laws, NARAL could be fined up to $10,000 or 200 percent of the violation if it "knowingly and willfully" committed a violation.
At this point, the FEC is only trying to determine facts and is making no allegations, a spokesman cautioned. NARAL must respond to the FEC inquiry within 15 days.