UPDATED: An earlier version of this article said that the FEC had determined that the press exemption included donations to Colbert’s super PAC from his show’s parent company, Viacom. This is not the case.
Stephen Colbert’s super PAC has – seriously, now – been approved by the Federal Election Commission. Again: a political satirist who tried to run for president not long ago, basically as a gag, and was shot down by the FEC, now has a working and legal political action committee, also basically as a gag.
For those of you who have not been keeping up with the intricacies of campaign finance law and the hilarious comedy surrounding it (I had the flu. What’s your excuse?), this is a pretty big deal, although its full effects are maybe not going to be so awesome.
Colbert is set to address the FEC’s decision this evening on his show.
Backstory: In 2010, the Supreme Court made a landmark (and IMHO, awful) decision in favor of a group called Citizens United, saying, in essence, that any independent group – meaning not directly affiliated with a party or candidate – is allowed to spend as much money as it wants in order to promote or smear any political entity. Candidate, party, ballot initiative, whatever. And – this is extremely important – it will not have to disclose its sources of funding. Many states had laws on the books at the time prohibiting independent funding of campaign ads, and with good reason – most commonly, large and powerful entities like corporations and unions were prevented from trying to sway elections in their favor, through third party shell organizations or otherwise. It was understood that part of preventing this was keeping campaigners of all stripes honest by requiring that they disclose their sources of funding, whether or not they described themselves as “independent.” That made sure no one created a company advocating for corporations that hid its motivations behind privacy protections intended for individuals. This demand for transparency, in fact, was part of Federal legislation for many years, under the Taft-Hartley Act (1947). After “Citizens United vs. the FEC,” which ruled that Citizens United would not have to tell anyone who had paid for its anti-Hillary Clinton ad, a new type of nonprofit corporation was created: the 501(c)4, which is exactly that kind of shell company.
Colbert exists, professionally, to point out the flaws in the political process, which he seems to regard as some kind of extreme sport – here he is giving one of the most uncomfortable speeches in the history of political commentary to George W. Bush and a poker-faced D.C. press corps at the White House Correspondents dinner. When he tells the audience that he’s here “to celebrate this president,” you can just feel the temperature in the room drop. It is brilliant and almost superhumanly ballsy.
“Citizens United vs. the FEC” presents a huge target to a prank-prone wonk like Colbert – so, you’re saying ANYONE can form a PAC? Well, what about me, a comedian obviously backed a huge media corporation like Comedy Central parent Viacom? Ha!
There are a couple of hiccups: Viacom has to disclose PAC-related activity that doesn’t have to do with Colbert’s show, including admin support. But if they want to, everyone at the company can make an individual donation funding PSAs supporting, say, a ballot initiative that would allow them to buy their biggest compeititor in every ad break on “The Colbert Report” without having to reveal their involvement (presumably they wouldn’t do that, and Colbert wouldn’t do it, either, but you get the point).
The problem with this particular stunt is that it proves what critics of the decision originally said of “Citizens United vs. the FEC” – that it grants vastly powerful corporations unfettered First Amendment rights. The good it does is this: If sole employees of MSNBC, for example, or Fox News Channel are called on the carpet about their super PACs, Sarah Palin and Karl Rove will have some ‘splainin’ to do because of the way the rules have been publicly debated and defined today.
Colbert got both special allowances and special restrictions for his super PAC because of what is known as a “press exemption.” Advocacy group Public Citizen explains it thusly: “The press exemption has long been a staple of campaign finance laws. It is critical for the freedom of the press to allow media outlets to pay for any costs associated with ‘covering or carrying any news story, commentary or editorial.’ Such media expenses are exempt from reporting requirements. As always, however, this press exemption means allowing media companies to pay for expenses in the course of its ‘legitimate press function,’ not a blanket exemption allowing such companies to finance political campaigns generally.” (quotes-within-quotes are from the actual statute)
It’s been determined that the press exemption DOES NOT allow media companies to finance political campaigns. It DOES, however, allow candidates to promote their own super PACs on-air, using their companies’ resources. Colbert told Politico today that he expected flowers from Rove and Palin, if the pair stay at Fox News. It may be too much to put the blame for that particular hiccup at Colbert’s feet – with the FEC already slapped down by the Supreme Court, it’s unlikely they were spoiling for another fight. Still, they might have put one up if the applicant had been less cuddly.
“Sixty days ago today, on this very spot, a young man petitioned the FEC for permission to form a super PAC, to raise unlimited monies and use those monies to determine the winners of the 2012 elections,” Colbert said today at a short conference after getting the official stamp of approval from the FEC.
Well, now’s his chance.
It’s hard to imagine that Colbert didn’t hope his application would get shut down a little harder than it did. Had that happened, it would have set precedent and caused the FEC to pull back the reins on anonymous funding of ads that advocate for the wealthy at the expense of the poor, shedding on campaign finance, rather than less. The approval of his PAC may call attention to the problem, but it has also set precedent in both directions at once. (and feel free to donate here, by all means – Colbert being a quasi-journalist himself who obviously likes exposing greed and self-interest, hopefully the money will go to legislating the thing out of existence).
Perhaps the man himself said it best:
“Who’s there?” said the crowd.
“Unlimited union and corporate campaign contributions.”
“Unlimited union and corporate campaign contributions who?” the crowd asked him.
“That’s the thing, I don’t think I should have to tell you.”