WASHINGTON, Dec. 10 (JTA) — The American Israel Public Affairs Committee may once again be battling for its political future. A federal appeals court has opened the question of whether AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, should be subject to restrictive federal campaign finance laws. In an 8-2 decision handed down last Friday and released this week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the Federal Election Commission misapplied the law in a 1992 decision that found that AIPAC did not fall under its jurisdiction. The court’s move could have a potentially seismic impact on the future of all membership organizations in the political arena. More immediately, the decision could deal a crippling blow to one of the Jewish community’s most influential organizations. If AIPAC — which, in spite of its name, is not currently classified as a political action committee — becomes defined as such, the FEC would sharply restrict the organization’s ability to raise and spend money and would force the lobby to open its books for public disclosure. The court “seems to be saying that AIPAC should register as a political committee,” said Ian Stirton, the FEC’s senior public affairs specialist. Political action committees, commonly known as PACs, raise funds to distribute to political candidates. The FEC, in response to a complaint filed in the early 1990s, found that AIPAC spent money in an effort to influence congressional elections, said Stirton, whose governmental agency monitors campaign contributions. But the FEC also ruled that this was not AIPAC’s “major purpose,” he said, meaning that the pro-Israel lobby did not have to register as a political action committee. On appeal, a lower district court upheld the FEC ruling, as did a three- judge panel at the federal appeals court. But the plaintiffs pursued the case, appealing to the full panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The lawsuit was filed by James Akins, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and was supported by former Rep. Paul Findley (R-Ill.) and former U.S. Information Agency official Richard Curtiss. All are known for their staunch opposition to Israel. The appeals court, in its ruling last week, said the “major purpose test” should not apply in this situation. With its decision, it threw the case back to the FEC. According to Stirton, the FEC has many options. It can appeal the decision to the Supreme Court within 90 days, find another reason to rule that AIPAC is not a political committee or declare AIPAC a political committee. Any decision, though, is a at least months away and no matter how the FEC rules, the case is likely to be tied up in the courts for years. AIPAC officials expressed optimism about the outcome. “I’m convinced that if the FEC does reopen the case and get into the relevant facts and legal issues, they will come to the conclusion that we are not a political committee,” said AIPAC President Melvin Dow. “The court did not decide that AIPAC is a political committee. The court did not decide that AIPAC violated election law. The court found that the FEC made a legal mistake,” he said. AIPAC’s future hinges in part on whether the FEC rules that it is a membership organization. Federal law grants wide latitude for membership groups to raise money and to communicate with their members on political matters and candidates’ positions. Different laws, however, apply to PACs. PACs are restricted in the amount of money that they raise from individuals and in the amount that spend on a particular candidate. For AIPAC, the answer is clear. “We’re entitled to communicate anything we want to our members. We’re a membership organization, pure and simple,” said Philip Friedman, AIPAC’s general counsel. “If I’m wrong on this and we’re not a membership organization, than the FEC decision would impact every organization, every union, every do-gooder that meets with a candidate and tells their members and their friends” what the candidate said and what their positions are. Since the FEC first handled the complaint four years ago, AIPAC has made some structural changes that it says strengthen the lobby’s claim that it is a membership organization. The changes were voluntary and not in response to any FEC ruling, AIPAC officials said. AIPAC officials vehemently deny that the lobby is involved in influencing elections and have called the complaint against it an action “by those who disagree strongly with the position AIPAC takes in regard to the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Dow said. In any event, their lawyers believe that they will prevail. “This is about basic fundamental First Amendment rights. It’s not the First Amendment as amended by the FEC,” said Friedman. Meanwhile, AIPAC officials stressed that it is business as usual and that the ruling would not affect day-to-day operations.
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