Bill Maher’s Plan to Oust a Member of Congress May Face Election Law Limits

Bill Maher's Plan to Oust House

Bill Maher may be embarking on an effort to find a member of Congress to oust from office this year, but he’ll have to be mindful of how he does it.

While campaign finance laws give him great leeway in what he says and does on HBO “Real Time With Bill Maher,” the situation gets murkier if he decides to visit a congressional district, as he indicated to the New York Times on Friday.

“This year, we are going to be entering into the exciting world of outright meddling with the political process,” Maher told the Times. The plan is for the show to ask viewers to put forth their individual representatives as the worst in the country, and for the show to use its power of ridicule and humor to make the case for throwing that elected official out.

There is a precedent for such “meddling”: Stephen Colbert, who created a SuperPAC for the 2012 cycle, ran humorous ads and made light of the state of money in politics. But he first sought an opinion from the Federal Election Commission, which said that while production of segments for Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” fell under a press exemption, other activities, like the creation of ad spots, did not. It didn’t mean that Colbert couldn’t create the ad spots, just that any Viacom expenditure had to be disclosed.

Trevor Potter, the Caplin & Drysdale election law attorney who represented Colbert, said that “as long as (Maher) is talking about candidates on the show, it will all be subject to the press exemption. There will be no restrictions on what he can say on his show.”

“What he has got to be careful of, and has to think through, is if he gets active in a campaign in ways that are different from what he would do as a member of the press with his regular television show,” says Potter, a former chairman of the FEC and president and general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center.

So if he travels to a congressional district, Potter says, the question will be, “Is whatever he is proposing to do in these districts consistent with what the show has normally done?”

If it is not, there also would be an issue of whether Maher coordinates his electioneering with the incumbent’s opponent, Potter said.

Bob Biersack of the Center for Responsive Politics agrees. “If he goes beyond his own program…and pays for ads on other media that would be another question, and those might be considered independent expenditures which would be reportable.”

For instance, a standup act or on-location comedy segment may fall right in line with what Maher does on the show, but if those events were connected to an election rally or an advertising campaign, they could trigger requirements that those expenses be disclosed as in-kind contributions.

Maher already exerted his influence on a campaign, contributing $1 million to the Priorities USA SuperPAC that was devoted to reelecting President Obama in 2012. This time, however, would be different, because the resources of his show will be used to spotlight the lesser members of Congress.

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 eased restrictions on corporate independent expenditures for or against political candidates, and Colbert’s SuperPAC seems to have eased worries among media companies over how their personalities engage in the electoral process.

“As a general rule, in the past media companies have been very careful in terms of how they would treat” such campaigns, says Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center. “What is interesting now is they are not as cautious now as they used to be.”

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  1. David Owen says:

    Good Luck, tonight in Mobile, you’ll be in the bowels of the Republican Beast (Sanger Theater), is a monument to yesterday/ Great Venue. Being raised in Mobile, till I left for Vietnam and returned after being discharged

    I now live in Lake Dallas, Texas/ The Asshole of the Republican Beast, where abortion, gay marriage, and medical marijuana/ recreational, and fracking for oil will be issues that won’t be resolved probably till after I’ m in the ground, cause so many chose to stick their heads in the sand when for fear of pissing the money contributors off, and the religious fanatics since it’s almost election time.
    Last week, someone started boycotting Girl Scout cookie sales, because Wendy Davis, who is running for Democratic/ Governor of Texas, supports Girl Scouts, so her abortion rights platform, and cookie sales are connected; So ? Well, you get it.
    Again, Go, Man, Go.
    A Loyal Fan, & Vietnam Vet III

  2. Jon L. says:

    Please help Wisconsin, thin our herd by ridding us of Jim Sensenbrenner. Please!

  3. Virgilio Carballo says:

    Elliot Engel of the Bronx should be given the heeve-ho. Only thing he does is position himself in a spot at presidential state of the union addresses and have which ever President is making a speech sign something for him..

  4. John Callaghan says:

    Scott Garrett from NJ’s 5 district should go. He is the worst of the worst in Congress!

  5. larissa says:


  6. David Martin says:

    Dot your eyes & cross your knees Bill, but please keep the heat on our corrupt, bought & sold political system. Keep it credible & real & my guess is it will pick up a huge following. Kind of like “The Voice” in reverse. Do it Bro!!

  7. William says:

    Rip him a new one, Bill. We’re with you.

  8. JFetch says:

    I think everyone is misunderstanding what he meant when he said this. He’s not getting into the political process, he’s just focusing his show on one person by highlighting their stupidity. It’s the same thing he’s always done, but with more focus on one congress member. He’ll most likely do one segment a week devoted to it at most.

  9. Jacques Strappe says:

    The very acerbic and talented Mr. Maher will no doubt lift skirt of Citizens United but his progressive fans already know the ugliness that lies underneath. Still, it should be highly entertaining to watch and a rallying cry for progressives. I suspect Colbert will participate in the fun, too by doing what Colbert does best in skewering Republicans and conservative media with his outrageousous and unflappable support.of their faux patriotism.

  10. Jeff says:

    This idiot is still on TV?!! This just goes to show how sad this country is, between him and The Kardashians it’s no wonder we continue to be the laughing stock of other countries!

  11. gradycarter says:

    Reblogged this on Gradycarter's Blog and commented:
    This is a very interesting approach to activism/entertainment…

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