The Federal Election Commission does serious issues. It does complex debates over mind-numbing campaign laws. It does not do funny.
But now the agency finds itself the target of a very public joke by television comedian and provocateur Stephen Colbert, who is set to testify Thursday on his tongue-in-cheek bid to form an eponymous “super PAC” for the 2012 election season.
The host of “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central has spent months riffing on the notion of a political committee dedicated to his enrichment, part of a broad satire poking fun at court rulings allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections. He wants permission to let his network’s parent company, Viacom, help him in the effort.
“You, the Colbert Nation, could have a voice in the form of my voice shouted through a megaphone made of cash,” he told his audience recently.
But while Colbert is playing for laughs, many experts worry that the request will further loosen election laws by blurring the line between broadcast personalities and politicians, giving media companies freer range to act as de facto political groups.
The episode illustrates the sense of chaos that has enveloped the nation’s campaign-finance system as regulations have been steadily chipped away by the courts and by Republican FEC commissioners, who take a dim view of many election rules. Just this week, the Supreme Court threw out part of Arizona’s public-financing law, ruling that it is unconstitutional to provide matching funds for candidates facing well-funded rivals.
“Obviously Mr. Colbert is playing this for humor,” said Lisa Gilbert of the Public Citizen advocacy group. “But I’m not sure if he intended these far-reaching consequences.”
At the normally staid FEC, the agency’s small contingent of bureaucrats and little-known commissioners have been scrambling to prepare for Colbert’s scheduled appearance Thursday morning. Federal and local police have been notified, extra chairs are being squeezed into the cramped FEC meeting room and media organizations are being asked for head counts.
When Colbert first made a show of dropping off his initial paperwork at the FEC in early May, about 500 fans came to cheer him on.
“It might be the only entertaining FEC meeting in its history,” quipped Tara Malloy of the Campaign Legal Center.
Cynthia L. Bauerly, a Democratic appointee who serves as the commission’s rotating chairman, declined to discuss the substance of the legal issues raised by Colbert’s request.
Colbert has made a long and successful career as a TV comic — first on “The Daily Show” and now on his program — by deftly skewering politicians in his guise as a self-important, slightly ridiculous conservative commentator. Colbert has spent much of the past year poking fun at the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which found that corporations had the same rights as individuals when it came to political speech.
Colbert eventually arrived at the idea of forming his own super PAC, a new breed of political committee that is allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money from corporations and individuals.
But then came the legal problems: Any work on behalf of the super PAC in connection with the show could be considered an in-kind contribution from Viacom, which would have to report such spending to the FEC.
“Why does it get so complicated to do this?” Colbert complained on his show. “All I’m trying to do is affect the 2012 election. It’s not like I’m trying to install iTunes.”
Colbert has gone all out in his crusade, hiring veteran lawyer Trevor Potter, a former FEC chairman and counsel to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)’s 2008 presidential campaign. (The case has been somewhat awkward for Potter, who also heads the Campaign Legal Center, which opposes Colbert’s plans.)
Neither Colbert nor Potter is talking about the case outside the show. Viacom has also stayed mum.
Now the matter lies with the six-member FEC, a board paralyzed by 3 to 3 partisan standoffs over the proper reach of campaign-finance laws.
Among the questions before the panel: Should Colbert be given a press exemption, generally available to newsgathering operations in order to discuss his “Colbert Super PAC” on the air? Should Viacom have to report any help it gives Colbert as a political contribution? And can Colbert use Viacom resources to pay for super PAC ads that run on other networks?
FEC attorneys have drafted three sets of possible answers, including a far-reaching opinion that would place few limits on what Viacom and Colbert could do. All three options appear to allow Colbert to highlight the super PAC on his show without having to treat it as reportable political spending.
Many campaign-finance activists fear this would allow media companies to secretly fund unlimited political campaigns, perhaps on behalf of their own analysts or pundits.
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, notes that the FEC is also set to consider a more far-reaching request Thursday to allow federal candidates to raise unlimited funds on behalf of super PACs.
Many conservatives are rooting for Colbert. “I think it’s actually providing his viewers with an inside look at just how convoluted, complex, and stifling our current system of campaign finance regulations are,” wrote Sean Parnell of the Center for Competitive Politics.
Indeed, Colbert has run into some complications. When he greeted supporters outside the FEC last month, Colbert bragged that he took in $31 in donations stuffed in a greasy paper bag. So, the FEC asked, does that mean you’ve already started collecting money for your PAC?
No, his attorneys responded: “They were $1 bills received by Mr. Colbert personally as payment for shaking his hand.”