Foreign nationals, both individuals and corporations, have long been barred from making contributions in federal, state or local elections in the United States. The statutory prohibition includes contributions made “directly” or “indirectly,” bars the solicitation as well as the making of contributions, and since 2002, includes a ban on expenditures, independent expenditures, or electioneering communications by foreign nationals.  Penalties are stiff, including incarceration for a criminal violation.

But how should the law treat U.S. corporations that are subsidiaries of a foreign corporate parent? Are they “American” if run by U.S. citizens, incorporated in the United States, and U.S. citizens make all funding and spending decisions?  The FEC first answered this question in a  1978 advisory opinion and, in essence concluded that if U.S. citizens control the decisions about contributions and the operation of the PAC, using corporate funds raised from U.S. operations, and the PAC contains only funds from lawful U.S. donors, the ban on “indirect” contributions by a foreign national does not apply, even if the U.S. subsidiary is wholly owned by a foreign parent company.

This view has always had its dissenters, but for decades this has been the view of a majority at the FEC. However, since 2012, at least three FEC Commissioners have argued that this view of the law is incorrect, and that the issues should be reconsidered and/or reversed so that U.S. subsidiaries of foreign corporations would be barred from making contributions or expenditures in federal, state or local elections, including being barred from operating a corporate PAC.  This has generated 3-3 deadlocks in a number of advisory  opinions. The FEC will revisit the issue Tuesday, as Commissioner Ravel has placed the issue on the agenda for the FEC’s next meeting, seeking to remove the exemption for U.S. subsidiaries run by U.S. nationals.

There seem to be three principal arguments in favor of a change.

  • The tools presently available to enforce the law are too weak to address the threat, and only an outright ban is sufficient to stop foreign involvement.
  • Even when foreign nationals have no direct role in contribution decisions, the foreign ownership alters the thinking of the Americans who run the U.S. subsidiary, and their loyalties cannot help but shift to the interests of their foreign owners, and only a total ban can prevent this indirect influence.
  • Citizens United led to an unwarranted expansion of corporate political power, and this is one way to reign it in.

In a statement released in advance of the meeting, Commissioner Ravel seems to be advancing the first of these arguments, citing a recent and successful Justice Department prosecution of a foreign national who funneled contributions into a state election, and a recent news report alleging that foreign nationals directly controlled a U.S. corporation’s decision to give to a super PAC. Some will take this as a sign the current regime is working, with violations being uncovered and prosecuted.

The issue is unlikely to be resolved at the FEC on Tuesday, but will remain a hot button topic in campaign finance, and should be on everyone’s radar screen if Congress takes up the issue of campaign finance reform in the next Congress.