Stephen Colbert – a man who makes millions by saying one thing and meaning another – went to Washington, D.C., last week, purportedly to further the perversion of campaign finance rules.
He failed, or so it may seem.
His visit was the latest installment of the Comedy Central star’s months-long parody of campaign spending restrictions in the wake of the Citizens United case that dismantled federal limits on corporate and union campaign spending.
Colbert appeared before the Federal Elections Commission to request its blessing to use the resources of his show, “The Colbert Report,” to promote the goals of his new political action committee.
Specifically, he sought protection under a so-called media exemption that allows newspapers, TV stations and other media outlets to endorse or oppose political candidates without having the commentary considered an in-kind contribution to a campaign.
The request alarmed campaign finance watchdogs, who had benefited from Colbert’s skewering of corporate cash in elections but now worried that he was taking the shtick too far.
A favorable FEC ruling, they warned, could result in the “radical evisceration” of campaign finance rules and “open gaping disclosure loopholes.”
Their fear: That the exemption would get played for more than laughs, allowing pundit-politicians such as Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich to receive unlimited, undisclosed contributions to their PACs from their media employers.
Colbert, in seeking to lampoon the power of money in politics, risked opening the door to even greater abuses.
Is he crazy? Like a fox. Political satire is, after all, about more than a punchline; it’s social criticism in pursuit of change.
The comedian didn’t hire just anyone to shepherd his test case past the FEC. His lawyer, Trevor Potter, is a former FEC chairman who helped author the McCain-Feingold campaign reform law.
Potter is also president of the Campaign Legal Center, one of two watchdog groups that petitioned the FEC to reject Colbert’s request. While Potter had recused himself from the group’s decision to file the petition, his sympathies aren’t likely so easy to shake.
Colbert’s not complaining. After the FEC issued the narrowest of rulings – saying that Viacom, Comedy Central’s parent company, would have to disclose its contributions if Colbert airs his PAC ads outside of his own show – Colbert told a crowd outside, “We won.”
The FEC decision is a victory for citizens’ ability to follow the money in elections, but a minor one. Many other avenues remain open to interest groups looking to hide their attempts to buy political influence.
Colbert’s own PAC – Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow – still may, as its website states, “accept unlimited corporate contributions, unlimited individual contributions, unlimited labor-union contributions, and unlimited PAC contributions.”
On Thursday, the comedian quipped, “I don’t accept the status quo. I do accept Visa, MasterCard or American Express.”
If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.