Mocking the byzantine campaign finance regulations that govern U.S. elections would have been easy. Instead of pushing for solutions, satirist Stephen Colbert — who won a Peabody award for his efforts — decided to become part of the problem.
The host of The Colbert Report retained a high-profile lawyer and created his own super PAC, just like those of Karl Rove and the Koch brothers. Colbert traveled to Washington in June 2011 to get his group — Americans For A Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow — approved by the Federal Election Commission. After a successful hearing, he spoke to throngs of supporters on E Street who immediately pulled out their credit cards to donate. “There will be [those] who say, Stephen Colbert, what will you do with all that unrestricted super-PAC money?” he told them. “To which I say, I don’t know. Give it to me and let’s find out.”
Colbert used some of that cash to release an ad about “cornography” in the run up to the Iowa caucuses. Colbert also hosted a rally that was ostensibly about being rocked by “a Herman Cain” but was also another chance to talk about super PACs. And he later sold do-it-yourself super-PAC starter kits ($99), complete with paperwork, tube socks and a treasure map. By Election Day, his independent expenditure-only committee had raised more than $1.2 million—though Colbert had to share a little credit with Jon Stewart, who steered the committee during Colbert’s brief run for “President of the United States of South Carolina.”
Although the FEC shows more than $776,000 still in the bank, Colbert announced that the super PAC is “shutting down effective immediately” in a letter on his “now defunct” website. Colbert cited the death of Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow’s chief strategist, “Ham Rove” — a supermarket ham in Karl Rove-style eyeglasses — as the impetus for closing up shop. (Loyal viewers will know that Colbert actually murdered Ham Rove in a skit on his show.)
Now, of course, there may be those who say “Stephen Colbert, what will you do with all that leftover money?” When it comes to traditional committees, there are rules about that. The money can, for example, be given to another committee or another candidate. The money cannot be used for expenses like paying off the mortgage on the candidate’s nice new house in Fairfax County. The law also specifically states that “country club memberships” are a no-go, which tells you a lot about the history of campaign finance.
Super PACs are young entities. By definition, those committees can only make “independent expenditures,” which rules out direct contributions to candidates. Beyond that, the FEC doesn’t have concrete guidelines specifying exactly what can and can’t be done with the remaining balance. On Monday, Colbert joked on his show about secretly cutting himself a check by using an IRS loophole. Still, our money is on Colbert giving the money to charity, as traditional committees can. Certainly that’s what an “Americeptional” man would do.