Comedian and S.C. native Stephen Colbert has gained national fame from his unique brand of political humor on his Comedy Central TV show “The Colbert Report.” His satirist style, however, sometimes crosses over from behind the television screen to the realities of American politics. One of Colbert’s most notable forays into politics came in 2008 after he decided to run for president, but only in the S.C. primary. Colbert’s intentions were to half-jokingly run as a “favorite son” of the state on both the Republican and Democratic platforms, but he eventually dropped out of the race.
Last week, Colbert made another venture into the realm of real politics after he decided to test the limits of his Super Political Action Committee (Super PAC). Super PACs allow groups and individuals to fundraise for or against candidates away from the conventional parameters of campaigning. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) approved his request, allowing Colbert to not only raise unlimited amounts of money through his Super PAC, but also allowing him to promote it on his show.
Super PACS are allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money and some are not even required to note where the money is coming from. Such groups, known as 501 (c)(4) nonprofits, are required to disclose how much they spend, but are not required to publicly disclose any donor information.
These Super PAC groups involve not only purely political entities, but also corporations and labor unions. They can spend money on particular candidates or funnel money to other PACs in order to raise extreme amounts of cash. Such spending was approved under a Supreme Court ruling that allowed political donations to be treated as free speech and protected under the First Amendment.
Colbert mostly seems to be poking fun at Karl Rove, a Republican adviser, who also works for Fox News. Rove repeatedly mentions his own Super PAC, known as American Crossroads, on the air. Consequently, he seems to be blurring the line between political commentary and official campaign fundraising.
Colbert, noting this oddity, decided to test the system. The key question raised by Colbert was whether discussion of a PAC by an on-air commentator essentially constitutes a contribution from the commentator’s company. They pay him to be on the air, so are they also paying him to promote the political values of his fundraising group?
Had Colbert’s request failed, for example, Rove could not have mentioned American Crossroads on FOX News. Since the ruling passed, Rove is now free to promote his Super PAC and still keep his job at FOX News. Rove’s Super PAC and its affiliate spin-off group Crossroads GPS have stated that they hope to raise about $120 million for the next election.
Colbert can also now promote his Super PAC without facing any penalty from the FEC. This truly shows how flimsy the country’s campaign finance laws are. Recent decisions by the FEC have largely deleted many of the campaign reforms enacted after the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s. The FEC is split along party lines and officials are appointed by party leaders. Party leaders obviously pick regulators who are sympathetic to particular issues. Consequently, the federal regulators find it hard to agree on any true enforcement of campaign laws. The result is a “wild west” style of campaigning.
The decision in favor of Colbert merely accentuates one of the major flaws in campaign finance. Perhaps Colbert put it best when the decision came in to approve his new Super PAC. Standing upon the steps of the FEC, Colbert noted to a group of reporters and supporters, “change is coming and I hope a lot of large bills, too.”