Stephen Colbert Got His Super PAC
Narrowly. The vote was 5 to 1 in favor, but the ads can run only during his show.
Colbert’s is the nation’s 114th SuperPAC. So what’s a SuperPAC? It’s a consequence of the “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision which gave corporations, unions and individuals the right to give unlimited cash to outside groups to campaign for or against candidates.
With it Colbert can:
- Take in unlimited donations from nearly any source, other than foreign nationals and government contractors
- Air TV and radio ads expressly telling viewers and listeners to vote for certain candidates — but his group cannot give money directly to those candidates
- Report contributions to the Federal Election Commission
- Report spending on campaign ads
Reform advocates initially supported Colbert’s request, thinking it would bring attention to the cause. Later they worried that he could, instead, be opening loopholes that other (FOX-y) networks might exploit.
Chris Good explains:
Colbert had sought guidance from the FEC on how to handle air-time and help from Viacom, Comedy Central’s parent company — and this is the area in which his SuperPAC has forced precedents with implications for other media companies, like Fox News.
The FEC ruled today that Viacom can fund Colbert’s group, without limit, as long as it only helps out with ads that air during his show:
- Discussion of Colbert’s SuperPAC during his show is not considered a contribution to the PAC from Viacom — an application of the standard “media exemption,” which allows media outlets to offer commentary on political groups and candidates without that commentary being deemed a contribution. Under this rule Jon Stewart can comment on Colbert’s SuperPAC, too.
- If Colbert uses his air-time to run PAC-produced independent expenditures — i.e., a SuperPAC commercial that tells people to vote for a particular candidate — Viacom can pay for everything. It can produce the ad. Viacom does not have to report to the FEC how much it spent in doing so; the production and air-time are not considered a contribution to the PAC.
- Viacom cannot fund ads to run outside of Colbert’s own show, or on any other network.
Colbert had considered, according to FEC documents, having the staff of his show produce campaign ads, airing them during his own show, and then paying other media companies to air those same ads on other networks — a prospect with potentially vast implications for Fox News, which employs political figures like Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, both of whom have PACs of their own.
Colbert told the commissioners he didn’t really know “what we’re going to do with the ads, where we’re going to place them, because we don’t have the PAC yet.” But had it allowed Colbert to air Viacom-funded ads outside his show, Fox, for instance, could conceivably have funded the production of political ads for Huckabee’s HuckPAC to air outside his own weekend show on Fox.
The FEC told Colbert he can’t do that. But, for the purposes of Colbert’s allotted time on Comedy Central, Viacom and Colbert’s TV staff can spend unlimited time and resources making PAC-related commercials, without reporting any of that to the FEC.
Colbert talks to the crowd at the FEC afterward:
Wednesday night Colbert explained his effort — and invited fans to show up outside the FEC:
Colbert says his PAC is no joke. He says he wants to make ads more offensive than the ones currently airing. It will be interesting to watch. It may really be serious.