The Federal Election Commission said Thursday that legally married same-sex couples must be treated in the same manner as opposite-sex couples under election law, reversing its position in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling last month that struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act.
The panel said that same-sex spouses can make a single campaign contribution from a joint bank account if only one spouse has earned the income, as opposite-sex spouses are permitted to do. The commissioners also concluded that gay federal candidates who are legally married can use assets they jointly own with their spouses in their campaigns, and that same-sex spouses are considered family members of gay candidates for purposes of campaign finance rules.
The decisions came in response to advisory opinion requests from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Dan Winslow, a Republican who ran in a Massachusetts special primary election in the spring to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
“This is a matter of basic, fundamental constitutional rights,” campaign finance lawyer Marc Elias, who represented the Democratic committee, told the commission at Thursday’s meeting.
The five members of the panel, which is short one commissioner, set aside the rancor that has engulfed the agency in recent months to unanimously approve the two measures.
The rulings were heralded by gay rights advocates, who are pressing the Obama administration to update federal regulations to comply with the high court’s decision.
Winslow, who lost his Senate bid but is still raising money to retire his campaign debt, said he pushed for the ruling to demonstrate Republican support for gay rights.
“Today is an important step on the path to equality and freedom for all Americans and for the Republican Party to remember its roots,” he said.
The commission ruled in April that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as solely between a man and a woman, prohibited married same-sex couples with a single income to donate through one check.
“Several of us were not very happy,” Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub said during Thursday’s meeting. “I will take much more satisfaction signing this advisory opinion.”
Republican Commissioner Donald F. McGahn II said it was more of a “hyper-technical regulatory issue” than “some bold step.”
“For purposes of campaign finance law and limits, everybody counts here,” he said.
The panel did not take up the most charged issue on its docket: the adoption of a formal enforcement manual, which has triggered an intense power struggle between the three GOP commissioners and the agency’s staff lawyers. FEC general counsel Anthony Herman stepped down this month after the Republican members proposed rules that would limit the ability of agency lawyers to share information with federal prosecutors without commission approval.
McGahn, who is scheduled to leave the panel once the Senate chooses a replacement, released a 21-page memo Thursday accusing commission staff members of operating in secrecy and rejecting charges that he was seeking to impede FEC cooperation with the Justice Department.
But the matter appears unlikely to come to a vote while McGahn is on the panel. Weintraub told House lawmakers in a letter Thursday that it would be “highly inappropriate” for the agency to vote on the new rules until the Senate confirms two new commissioners recently nominated by President Obama.