The Federal Election Commission made it official on Thursday: Stephen Colbert can form his own super PAC. This means that the satirical newsman joins the 100-odd similar committees who can raise (and spend) unlimited amounts to support or oppose candidates in the 2012 elections. The FEC ruling also had implications for media companies and, arguably, comedy—Colbert’s victory speech proved that there’s no topic too esoteric for a knock-knock joke.
Recent Supreme Court rulings have made the formation of super PACs—and unlimited corporate donations to them—possible. Those decisions have led some to worry that elections will be less about the merits of Candidate A and more about the moolah of Company A. Steve Dingledine, a 43-year-old elementary school teacher who was first in line for this morning’s hearing, is one such person. “The common man is shut out of the process,” he says. “I teach fifth grade, and I can barely keep a straight face when I’m talking about democracy.”
Media companies such as Viacom, The Colbert Report‘s parent, are at a unique intersection of these campaign-finance rules because many pundits have associated PACs, which they might talk about (i.e. promote, inadvertently or otherwise) on the air. With these considerations in mind, Colbert’s lawyers filed a request for an advisory opinion in May. Two main questions were posed to the FEC: Can Colbert form his own super PAC? And how does the use of Viacom resources, including airtime used on the show to discuss the PAC, need to be reported? If the FEC said that uses of Viacom resources never needed to be reported, that could have opened the doors for media companies to bankroll committees without oversight. As one activist group put the concern in a letter to the FEC, “This would carve out a gaping loophole in campaign finance laws, allowing any company involved in media to foot, in secret and without limit, the electioneering expenses of political committees.”
To the great relief of watchdogs, that didn’t happen. The six-person committee at the FEC said it was easy to determine that Colbert could form a super PAC; the hard part was deciding exactly how Viacom would fit into the process. In a 5-1 vote, they eventually decided that any costs associated with discussing the super PAC on The Colbert Report—be that production costs, airtime or money used for ads shown solely on the show—would be covered by a press exemption, and therefore would not be reported as an in-kind contribution from Viacom. But Viacom would have to report any costs associated with the super PAC’s political activities outside the show. This would include resources used for ads shown on other shows and stations, as well as any administrative costs for of the committee, meaning The Colbert Report staff could not simply double at the Colbert Super PAC staff.
Unlike Colbert’s House Judiciary Committee hearing last year, the meeting itself did not prove very chuckle-worthy. The chairs discussed their respect for political commentary and spending limits with nary a peep from Colbert. But he had a rollicking victory speech at the ready for the crowd that had gathered by the time the hearing was over. “Sixty days ago today, on this very spot, a young man petitioned the FEC for permission to form a super PAC, to raise unlimited monies and use those monies to determine the winners of the 2012 elections,” he said. “Moments ago, the Federal Election Commission made their ruling. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry to say … We won!” (You can read a fuller version of his speech here.)
Then came a moment of sincerity. “Now some people have cynically asked, ‘Is this some kind of joke?’ Well, I don’t think that participating in democracy is a joke. I don’t that wanting to know what the rules are is a joke,” he said. But, he added, he does have one federal election law joke.
“Knock, knock,” he said.
“Who’s there?” the crowd responded.
“Unlimited union and corporate campaign contributions.”
“Unlimited union and corporate campaign contributions, who?”
“That’s the thing. I don’t think I should have to tell you.”