Campaign Reformers Say Stephen Colbert’s FEC Joke Has Gone Far Enough

June 29, 2011 2:45 p.m.

Your average meeting of the Federal Election Commission is lucky to attract one reporter – usually Ken Doyle, the senior editor of the trade publication BNA’s Money & Politics Report. “I’ve been there many times when he and I were the only people in the audience,” campaign finance lawyer Brett Kappel told TPM.But when Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert shows up to FEC headquarters in downtown Washington on Thursday, things will be a bit different. A staffer for the FEC said they expected the hearing room to be full and have created a waiting list and an overflow room to handle the reporters and onlookers expected to attend.

Sounds like a circus, right? That’s what Colbert — who attracted a huge crowd when he filed the request in-person at FEC headquarters last month — has been going for all along: poking fun at the FEC and the nation’s lax campaign finance regulations.

For its part, the commission has been treating Colbert’s request like any other. It’s created some quirky moments, like when Colbert had to assure the commission that the cash he collected outside their office was “received by Mr. Colbert personally as payment for shaking his hand” and wasn’t going to his yet-to-be-formed “super PAC.”

Ultimately, if they follow the suggestions of their staff, the FEC seems set to let the Colbert Super PAC go forward one way or another. The commission will consider one of three draft opinions authored by their staff, all of which appear to let Colbert’s parent company Viacom pay for the Colbert Super PAC’s expenditures without having to publicly report their donations.

That’s a move that has campaign finance reformers worried. Public Citizen wrote a letter to the FEC on Wednesday calling on the commission to reject the request.

“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,” Public Citizen’s government affairs lobbyist Craig Holman said in a statement.

Holman warned that if the FEC granted Colbert’s request, “the next request will be for media companies to directly finance unlimited candidate campaigns under the press exemption – an abuse that is already being advocated in some quarters.”


Libertarian-minded group opposed to what they call campaign quote-unquote “reform” say more power to him.

“Essentially I think what has happened is that what started out as a pretty funny comedy skit has kind of gotten very serious,” Sean Parnell of the Center for Competitive Politics told TPM.

Parnell, who was interviewed by Colbert for a segment that the show hasn’t yet aired, says the point that Colbert was trying to make — that Citizens United was a bad decision — has been undermined.

“What he’s actually been doing for the last several weeks is educating his audience in how complex and convoluted campaign finance laws can be,” Parnell said.

Conservative lawyer James Bopp, who has been involved in suits that have taken a hatchet to campaign finance regulations, told TPM he sees no reason why the commission should reject Colbert’s request.

“I don’t see why not,” Bopp said. “I mean, he’s on TV. I don’t think it really matters. Either one seems to fit within the law — that is either getting a media exception or having Viacom report the in-kind contribution. I think either way allows him to do what he wants to do.”

Colbert’s appearance at the FEC will almost certainly overshadow what campaign finance reformers say is a much more important decision on whether politicians are allowed to solicit on behalf of super PACs, as first proposed by Bopp.

“That certainly will have a much more immediate impact on the 2012 elections,” Tara Malloy of the Campaign Legal Center told TPM.

Colbert is expected to be accompanied by his lawyer, Trever Potter, who heads up the Campaign Legal Center, a group that has opposed Colbert’s request. Here’s a clip of Potter and Colbert discussing how his press exemption would work.

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