Colbert's SuperPAC Has Big Implications for Campaign Finance

The Comedy Central star will force the Federal Election Commission to answer serious questions about restrictions on independent campaign spending

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The Federal Election Commission on Thursday will consider whether comedian Stephen Colbert can use a media giant's resources to promote his own independent expenditure-only political action committee. With Colbert slated to attend, the hearing has quickly turned into a Washington media circus.

But beneath the allure of a bona fide celebrity attending a sleepy FEC hearing lie deeper questions about the impact an FEC ruling could have on a law that exempts media organizations from campaign finance reporting requirements.

In March, Colbert broached the idea of creating a political action committee during his nightly show on Comedy Central. With the help of former FEC chairman Trevor Potter, the political satirist filed a request for an advisory opinion with the FEC in May. Colbert and his attorneys, including Potter, requested a press exemption from the commission to would allow Colbert Super PAC to use the resources of his parent company, Viacom, to create independent expenditure ads for the upcoming campaign cycle, without having to report Viacom's contributions as "in-kind."

In filing the request, Colbert is seeking to take advantage of an exemption traditionally used to allow media outlets to report and comment on campaigns and endorse candidates without having their work considered "in-kind" political contributions, triggering filing and disclosure requirements with the Federal Election Commission.

The request comes down to one essential issue: whether Viacom can legally donate production costs, airtime and use of Colbert's staff to create ads for the so-called super PAC, to be played both on "The Colbert Report" and as paid advertisements other networks and shows.

If the FEC grants Colbert a press exemption, the decision could have a drastic effect on media involvement in federal elections, potentially opening the door for media outlets that employ politicians as commentators to aid favored candidates through undisclosed contributions. Those figures include Fox News contributor Karl Rove, who founded American Crossroads, and former Ark. Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) who heads "Huck PAC" and hosts a show on Fox News.

Several campaign finance reform advocates are expressing concern over three proposed changes the FEC will consider on Thursday. Granting Colbert's request in full, they argue, would allow media companies to anonymously fund the political activities of their employees, under the protection of the FEC's press exemption.

Several groups filed briefs on Colbert's advisory opinion, warning the FEC of the consequences of granting the request. But here's where the relationships get awkward: One group expressing outrage is the Campaign Legal Center, of which Potter himself is president and general counsel. The CLC and another group, Democracy 21, filed a joint commentary on the advisory opinion urging the FEC to tread lightly when granting Colbert's press exemption.

Granting the exemption would produce what the reformers called "a sweeping and damaging impact on disclosure laws," which would allow media companies to fund employees' political activities anonymously. Politicians who are employed by media companies could use their television shows as platforms to raise unlimited funds for their PACs, without having to disclose it, the reform groups said.

Additionally, those media companies would be allowed to anonymously pay for independent expenditure ads for those PACs, which could then be played on other networks and shows, as well as online. Media companies (Including Fox News, which employs several political figures associated with super PACs) could fund the administrative costs of their employees' PACs, without having to disclose that donation.

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Sarah Mimms is a staff writer for National Journal Hotline.

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