Stephen Colbert appeared at the Federal Election Commission in Washington, D.C., this morning to find out if his “super PAC” had been approved. It was. And so today is the first day Colbert can start living out his committee slogan: “Making a better tomorrow, tomorrow.”
For those few who have not been spending their spare time following campaign finance, here are the super-PAC basics. A recent Supreme Court decision allowed for the formation of political committees that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose a specific candidate, though they have to do so independently (i.e. not in cahoots with any candidate). These committees are called super PACs, or more formally, independent-expenditure only political action committees. Another Supreme Court decision allowed for corporations to donate unlimited funds to these super PACs. So people have worried that elections will become dominated by Company A and Company B rather than the merits of Candidate A and Candidate B. For some months, Colbert has been attempting to form his own, sneakily bringing the public’s attention to a serious issue by cloaking it in satire.
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About 30 people had lined up outside the FEC building an hour before Colbert’s hearing started. Some among them were just there to see a favorite celebrity, but others had an interest in the issues, too. There was Steve Dingledine, 43, an elementary school teacher. “The word unlimited. That’s the word that scares me,” he says. “Not everybody has sufficient funds to be involved in the political process.” There was also Dave Ferguson, a 23-year-old pastor. “There is a driving trend now indicating that money is the same as speech,” Ferguson says. “And I think that’s very counterintuitive to the American ideal. It’s very capitalist, but it’s not necessarily very American.”
During the hearing, Colbert kept quiet as the chairpeople discussed the various facets of his request. Giving him approval to form a super PAC was the easy part, they said. More complicated were the questions of how much he could talk about it on his show and how he could use the resources of his parent media company, Viacom. In the end, with a 5-1 vote, they gave him permission to form the PAC and speak about it on The Colbert Report as much as he liked without having to worry about financial reports.
By the time Colbert exited, a boisterous crowd was there to greet him. Standing on makeshift dais, he greeted them back as “freedom-lovers” and gave them a speech:
“I am here to represent your voice, so please quiet down so we can all hear what you have to say with my mouth.
Fellow Americans, ladies and gentlemen, supporters, friends and federal employees with extremely generous lunch-break policies, thank you for being here today. Thank you for standing with me for freedom. It’s been said that freedom isn’t free. Today we placed a sizeable down payment, we put liberty on layaway …
Of course, I don’t need to tell any of you the story of Colbert Super PAC. Here’s the story. Sixty 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 … It was me.
Moments ago, the Federal Election Commission made their ruling. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry to say … We won! Now some people have cynically asked, ‘Is this some kind of joke?’ Well, I don’t think that participating in democracy is a joke. I don’t think that wanting to know what the rules are is a joke. But I do have one federal election law joke.”
“Knock, knock,” he said.
“Who’s there?” the crowd responded.
“Unlimited union and corporate campaign contributions.”
“Unlimited union and corporate campaign contributions, who?”
“That’s the thing. I don’t think I should have to tell you …”
“Of course, there will be others who say, ‘Stephen Colbert, what will you do with that unrestricted money?’ To which I say, give it to me, and let’s find out. I don’t know about you, but I do not accept limits on my free speech! I don’t know about you, but I do not accept the status quo! But I do accept Visa, Mastercard and American Express. Fifty dollars or less please, because then I don’t have to keep a record of who gave it to me. Please remember, your gift is not tax-deductible for you. It is tax-exempt for me. Now please form an orderly mob. My unpaid staff and me are ready to shake my little moneymaker. Thank you. God bless America.”
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