The Federal Election Commission gets it—Stephen Colbert is punking them. But the FEC treated the Comedy Central host’s request for an advisory opinion like anyone else, and on Thursday granted him the ability to form a “super PAC.”
Their ruling allows his parent company Viacom to pay for most of their “coverage” of Colbert Super PAC’s activities under a press exemption without having to disclose such expenditures as in-kind donations.
Colbert, alongside his lawyer Trevor Potter, appeared at the FEC’s public hearing at their headquarters in downtown Washington. After asking Colbert a series of questions about the planned activities of ‘Colbert Super PAC’—such as whether the ads the group creates would run on other channels—the commission voted 5-1 on an advisory opinion to give him the go-ahead.
Campaign finance reform groups opposed Colbert’s motion because they said it would allow other media companies and politicians who have their own programs to promote their political action committees under the guise of a media exemption.
After the meeting wrapped, Colbert addressed a throng of supporters and reporters just outside the FEC building.
“60 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,” Colbert said. “Can anyone tell me who that young man was? It was me.”
“Now some people have cynically asked, is this some kind of joke? Well I for one don’t think that participating in a democracy is a joke,” Colbert told the crowd. “I don’t think that wanting to know what the rules are is a joke.”
“But I do have one federal election law joke if you’d like to hear it,” Colbert said.
“Knock knock?” Colbert said.
“Who’s there?” asked the crowd.
“Unlimited union and corporate campaign contributions,” Colbert said.
“Unlimited union and corporate campaign contributions who?” the crowd replied, not quite in unison.
“That’s the thing, I don’t think I should have to tell you,” Colbert replied.
Colbert said he didn’t know what he’d be doing with his unrestricted “super PAC” money, but said people should give him cash so they could find out.
“I don’t know about you, but I do not accept limits on my free speech,” Colbert said. “I don’t know about you, but I do not accept the status quo. But I do accept Visa, Mastercard, and American Express. $50 or less please, because then I don’t have to keep a record of who gave it to me.”
After his speech, Colbert accepted credit card donations to his “super PAC” using an iPad application. He also took questions from the crowd as FBI employees watched from the windows of their building across the street.
Colbert—who joked on his show that the first priority of his “super PAC” would be getting raises for the FEC—said that the commissioners should get “full body scrubs.” He said that Karl Rove and Sarah Palin should send them “bouquets of flowers” if they stay at Fox News.
The FEC staff — not accustomed to their typically low-profile meetings becoming media spectacles — had to hustle to deal with the crowd that wanted to get into the hearing.
“It was a little better attended than some of our meetings, we’re happy to have so many people interested in what the agency is doing,” FEC Chairwoman Cynthia Bauerly told TPM after the meeting.
“I don’t think that the result in the Colbert issue was all that surprising, it seems to me its a fairly straightforward application of our traditional press exception standards,” Bauerly said. “Obviously providing independent political committee expenditures doesn’t fall in the press function as we know it, so that’s where the line was drawn for the advisory opinion.”
“Obviously Mr. Colbert’s show has provided a lot of coverage for the agency and has brought a lot of attention to these issues that I think are important issues, so I appreciate that there are more people talking about campaign finance issues as a result of his show than might otherwise be,” Bauerly said.
So has Colbert shined a positive or negative light on the FEC?
“I guess we’ll see!” Bauerly said. “He obviously has a show where he likes to poke fun at certain elements from his perspective. Whether he finds the agency to be a part of that, a part of his humour, I guess we will see. But he didn’t approach this from a comedic standpoint, he approached it as a legitimate legal question for the commission to answer, and that’s how the agency handled it.”
“What he chooses to do from here going forward is up to him,” Bauerly said.
Note: This article has been updated from its original posting
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