Stephen Colbert’s campaign finance stunt took a decidedly serious turn on Thursday when the Federal Election Commission approved the comedian’s self-referential, and very real, “super-PAC.”
The commission approved the 2012 election super-PAC, 5-1, during a quiet and quite official meeting at the FEC’s offices in D.C. Colbert was shy with quips as his adviser, Trevor Potter, former FEC chairman and a top lawyer for Sen. John McCain, volleyed replies to the commission’s questions.
One of the commission’s biggest concerns was the involvement of Viacom — Comedy Central’s parent company — and whether it qualifies for the FEC “media exemption” allowing more traditional outlets to support or push candidates. Viacom also runs into a particularly interesting problem when it not only features, but possibly assists the Colbert Super PAC with resources in creating advertisements and promotional material for the group.
“If we had just viewed this as a funny [parody] request, it would have been a lot easier and it would have been easier to give it a more open-ended, ‘sure-do-whatever-you-want-have-fun’ kind of answer,” said commissioner Ellen Weintraub. “But you’ve proposed a serious request and you say you actually want to set up a PAC and raise and save money. Of course, what we tell you, will apply to other folks as well.”
Several members of the commission spoke of the “blurring line” between corporations that may also qualify as media outlets, particularly in the “aftermath” of last years Citizens United Supreme Court decision. Following his somber appearance before the commission, Colbert returned to character and addressed the throng of mostly young fans outside.
“Some people have said, ‘Is this some kind of joke?’” yelled Colbert as the live audience eagerly engaged the comedian. “I for one don’t think participating in democracy is a joke.”
Laughter broke out, but the statement may have been more serious than it was received. Amid the happy crowd was a baby in a Colbert onesie, and the line to enter the building before the meeting was at least 50-ft long. Inside, fresh-faced, recent D.C. transplants mingled with kids who brought skateboards and baseball caps.
Dollar bills were already being waved before Colbert finished his sidewalk routine, after which he began snatching up the sudden display of green like a bean-picker. A credit card-accepting iPad emerged as arms stretched out over one another so Colbert could swipe the donation himself.
Not everyone was excitedly handing over cash-money without considering the reality of the situation. Some just didn’t care.
“It was a great experience [to be one of the first contributors of the PAC], I just wanted to enjoy the craziness of it all,” said Kevin Harris, who had $50 digitally removed from his bank account. And why? “If there’s one person I want to give 50 bucks to do something stupid, it’d be that guy.”
What if he doesn’t do something stupid? Harris was meh. The Boston resident, who once had a Hill internship and seemed more familiar with FEC issues than the average American, just shrugged. “I don’t know, I’d be a little sad but it’s 50 bucks, not the worst thing for me.” He was equally concerned that he may have just overdrawn his checking account.
Others aren’t taking it as lightly.
As Politico’s Ken Vogel reported, groups advocating stricter campaign finance laws are treating the issue with a bit more gravitas, worried that the “proposals here would potentially open gaping disclosure loopholes in the campaign finance laws.”
Others, meanwhile, are noting that Colbert’s stunt only reinforces the position of those advocating looser campaign finance rules. These supporters, a significant number conservative, aren’t so much laughing with Colbert’s more liberal audience, as at them.
“I feel like Stephen Colbert is the voice of our generation and we need someone who will accept large amounts of money to make a difference in this country,” said Greg Sutherland as the crowd dispersed. He wasn’t being facetious.
Peering over the crowd in a seersucker suit and a cornflake-colored bow tie, Sutherland, who works at an undisclosed “Senate office,” looked like the stylish stereotype of a cool, young conservative. The kind that might have had a poster of William F. Buckley on his dorm room wall instead of some ragged jamband.
“I am a Republican!,” said Sutherland after being typecast by The Daily Caller. “Corporate donations are free speech [after the] Citizens United case; and you know if we’re going to take back both houses and the presidency, we need all the money we can get.”
So while the stunt was good fun on a bright Thursday afternoon, the FEC is still looking at serious, and seriously contentious, questions.
Back inside the building, an auxiliary room had been filled with chairs and a live-feed monitor to accommodate the overflow of curious spectators. Each seat had a packet stuffed with 30-plus blue pages of itemized agenda notes on the open meeting that looked as appealing as the FEC’s normal business topics. As everyone deserted the room following the super-PAC ruling, one FEC employee noted that, yes, there was another non-Colbert item on the meeting agenda.
It was to discuss whether lawmakers and federal office holders could legally solicit money on behalf of the Super-PACs. The focus was on the two recently formed Democratic super-PACs, Majority PAC and House Majority PAC.
The FEC employee, as he raised a knowing eyebrow, said “this is the real news today.”