Stephen Colbert's campaign finance victory: A guide

The Federal Election Commission approves the Comedy Central funnyman's bid to set up a super PAC. Who's getting the last laugh now?

Stephen Colbert meets with members of the Federal Election Commission to request to form a super PAC.
(Image credit: Yuri Gripas / Reuters)

Comedy Central star "Stephen Colbert is a funny man," said Federal Election Commission chairwoman Cynthia Bauerly, after the FEC approved Colbert's request on Thursday to form a so-called super PAC. "But he asked a legitimate question and received a serious answer." Colbert's question involved whether TV personalities could use the resources of their media company employers to support their own political action committees. The FEC said yes, with caveats. What are the implications of this "deadly serious" ruling? Here, a brief guide:

What exactly did the FEC decide?

First, that Colbert had the right to form a super PAC — a kind of political action committee that can raise and spend unlimited amounts from individuals and corporations. The groups are largely a result of recent Supreme Court rulings, notably 2010's Citizens United case. The more contentious FEC decision dealth with how media giant Viacom, Comedy Central's parent company, fits in. In a 5-1 ruling, the FEC ruled that when Colbert and his Colbert Report staff use Comedy Central resources to promote Colbert Super PAC on his show, including making and airing ads, Viacom doesn't have to disclose anything. But if those ads air on another network, Viacom has to report the "in-kind" contributions.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

What does that mean for campaign finance?

Not as much as nervous watchdog groups had feared. If the FEC had completely cleared Viacom of all disclosure requirements, it would allow giant media corporations to secretly bankroll super PACs affiliated with their employees. Still, "I should get bouquets of flowers from Karl Rove," Sarah Palin, and other Fox News pundits with PACs, Colbert said after the ruling. "I just made it perfectly above-board and legal to talk about your super PAC on air and to use your corporate show to promote your super PAC in any way."

Is this a joke for Colbert?

He insists it isn't. In a victory speech, Colbert said, "I don't think that participating in democracy is a joke." But he did have one joke for the crowd:

Colbert: "Knock, knock."

Crowd: "Who's there?"

Colbert: "Unlimited union and corporate campaign contributions."

Crowd: "Unlimited union and corporate campaign contributions, who?"

Colbert: "That’s the thing. I don’t think I should have to tell you."

Then he waded through the crowd taking credit card donations with a card-swiper and an iPad.

What are Colbert's plans for his new super PAC?

He isn't saying, and may not know himself. When asked about his plans by FEC commissioner Don McGahn, Colbert said he didn't know, "because we don't have the PAC yet. That's why I hope to get the PAC. So we can find out." On his show Thursday, Colbert asked for donations with the pitch, "Give it to me, and let's find out."

What does Colbert's stunt say about our election-financing system?

He obviously intended to shine a satirical light on our "flimsy," post–Citizens United, rich-take-all system, says Dana Milbank in The Washington Post. "But there was a flaw in his plan: The campaign-finance system already is a parody." Actually, the joke's on Colbert, and finance reformers, says Damon W. Root at Reason. By showing the need to hire a high-priced lawyer to even understand his rights regarding political donations, Colbert "has unintentionally revealed the ridiculous nature of campaign finance regulations," period.

Sources: Christian Science Monitor, National Journal, Politico, Reason, Talking Points Memo, TIME, Washington Post, USA Today

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us