Stephen Colbert learned an important lesson Thursday at the Federal Election Commission: Even a gifted comedian can’t make campaign-finance law funny.
In a meeting devoid of anything beyond a gentle chuckle, the FEC decided that Colbert could go ahead with his plans to form a self-titled “super PAC” that could raise and spend unlimited money on the 2012 elections.
But the panel also concluded that the television host’s employer, Viacom Corp., would have to report any help it gives to Colbert for political activities outside the “Colbert Report” show.
The FEC’s 5-1 decision came as something of a relief to campaign-finance reformers, who feared the panel might go further by allowing Viacom — and thus any other media company — to spend unlimited resources in elections without having to disclose the spending.
Instead the panel gave the newly registered “Colbert Super PAC” a relatively narrow media exemption applicable only to the humorist’s show. Any assistance from Viacom outside the show must be treated as “in-kind” contributions and reported to the FEC.
Nonetheless, the decision showed how far the law has loosened in the wake of a 2010 Supreme Court decision allowing unfettered corporate spending in elections. Super PACs like Colbert’s did not exist until after that ruling, but they now number more than 100.
In a separate — and arguably more substantive — ruling Thursday, the FEC decided unanimously that political candidates cannot raise unlimited funds for super PACs. The decision means lawmakers can raise money only within legal FEC limits, whoever the recipient.
“The solicitation of such unlimited contributions by federal officeholders and candidates is bound to cause corruption,” said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer, who praised the FEC decision.
Colbert’s request was part of a long-running satire by the Comedy Central host poking fun at loosened campaign finance rules. But Colbert himself said very little during the hearing, leaving most of the talking up to his attorney, Trevor Potter, and to FEC commissioners.
Meaning there were almost no jokes at all.
“If we had viewed this as just a funny request, that would have been a lot easier,” said Ellen Weintraub, a Democratic FEC member.
The real parody came outside the FEC building, where Colbert began accepting donations from fans for the Colbert Super PAC.
“Some people have said, ‘Is this some kind of joke?’ ” Colbert told the crowd. “I for one don’t think participating in democracy is a joke.”
Colbert continued being coy about the ultimate goal of his new PAC, and whether he would take advantage of a loosened campaign-finance environment to solicit big money from corporations and others. When asked by a reporter when the first ad might run, Colbert said: “I’ve got to get some money first.”
Colbert was also asked whether he might run for office in 2012. “I’m not running,” he said, pausing a beat for dramatic effect, “at this time.”
About 100 fans, media types and hangers-on crowded in front of the FEC offices on E Street NW to shout questions and offer contributions. One woman was wearing a shirt covered in dollar bills; Colbert himself took donations by swiping credit cards on a specially outfitted iPad.
“Today we put liberty on lay-away,” he quipped in a series of one-liners to the throng.