It's No Joke: FEC Oks Colbert Super PAC

Published Thu, Jun 30 2011 2:25 PM

This morning, at a cozy 9th floor hearing room at the Federal Elections Commission, comedian and talk show host Stephen Colbert received approval to establish his super PAC. Mr. Colbert’s PAC will be able to raise and spend an unlimited amount of money, and make unlimited expenditures, provided all his expenditures are not coordinated with any candidate, political committee, or party.

A so-called “super PAC” is a political action committee that may accept unlimited contributions from authorized sources (individuals, political committees, corporations, and labor organizations), but is only authorized to make independent expenditures (expenditures not coordinated with any candidate, party, or political committee). A super PAC has no limit on the amount of contributions it can accept from authorized sources. Additionally, it can accept contributions from corporations and labor organizations, which candidates, parties, and political committees cannot. Mr. Colbert’s legal issue was not an easy one to decide because of the uniqueness of his request to fall under the media exemption which establishing a PAC. However, Mr. Colbert is not the first one vying to establish a super PAC. While initially against super PACs, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi now want to raise money for Super PACs. (In a separate ruling today, the FEC ruled that federal office holders may not raise unlimited funds for super PACs.)

In a bi-partisan 5-1 vote, the Federal Elections Commission approved an Advisory Opinion which gave Mr. Colbert almost everything he asked for. First, Mr. Colbert is allowed to establish his “Super PAC.,” Second, if the committee is discussed on Mr. Colbert’s show, he does not have to disclose in-kind contributions from Comedy Central’s parent company, Viacom. The Commission determined these activities would fall under “press exemption,” which says that a contribution or expenditure would not result from “any cost incurred in covering or carrying a news story, commentary, or editorial by a news station unless owned by a political entity.” However, in a minor defeat, if Mr. Colbert’s independent expenditures are distributed outside of his show, he must disclose these as in-kind contributions from Viacom. The Commission said these would be considered in-kind contributions because distributing these advertisements outside Mr. Colbert’s show would fall outside their legitimate press function.

The one dissenting vote came from Commissioner Donald McGahn, who agreed that Mr. Colbert should be allowed to establish his PAC and solicit unlimited contributions, as well as make unlimited independent expenditures. However, Commissioner McGahn does not think advertisements outside of Mr. Colbert’s show need to be reported as in-kind contributions. Commissioner McGahn said:

I agree with question 1 and question 3, [pertaining to the establishment of the PAC, soliciting of funds, and production of independent expenditures] but I am skeptical that other advertising by Viacom is definitely something that should be reported. There are still questions of who the media are that need to be addressed in rules after Citizens United.

It is unclear whether Mr. Colbert knew what a legal process establishing his PAC would be. However, the FEC gave Mr. Colbert almost everything he wanted. The FEC is allowing him to establish his PAC, solicit unlimited contributions, and make unlimited independent expenditures. However, they determined that he falls under the press exemption for PAC activity on his program. This one minor defeat will likely not phase Mr. Colbert, as his PAC will most likely be run and monitored by his lawyer and campaign finance expert, Trevor Potter. The FEC’s ruling opens up other political commentators, and talk show hosts, to establish super PACs, as well as discuss these PACs on their respective programs, falling under the media exemption. The FEC gave Mr. Colbert the power, now the question is, will he use it?


To read all the proposed advisory opinions, go here. To listen to an audio recording of the hearing, go here

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