Colbert's 'SuperPAC' Pushes the Limits of Election Law

Viacom can fund his new group without reporting anything to federal regulators -- as long as campaign ads air within his time slot

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Comedian Stephen Colbert now has a "SuperPAC" -- a political group that can legally accept unlimited contributions from people, corporations, and unions to campaign for candidates and causes.

"Mr. Colbert, you may form your PAC and proceed as the commission has advised in this opinion," the Federal Election Commission's Democratic chair, Cynthia Bauerly, announced at the end of a hearing Thursday morning where Colbert sought approval for his new group, which now exists at the vanguard of soft-money election spending.

Smiling, Colbert shook the hand of his lawyer, Trevor Potter, a former FEC chairman himself who now serves as president of the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C. Potter had counseled Colbert about the meeting during Wednesday's showing of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central:

With the FEC's approval, Colbert will now:

  • Take in unlimited donations from nearly any source, other than foreign nationals and government contractors
  • Air TV and radio ads expressly telling viewers and listeners to vote for certain candidates -- but his group cannot give money directly to those candidates
  • Report contributions to the Federal Election Commission
  • Report spending on campaign ads

The trend in recent years among soft-money groups has been to file with the IRS under section 527 or 501(c)4 of the U.S. tax code, and not with the FEC, thereby evading reporting requirements under the guise of "issue advocacy." Colbert, meanwhile, has chosen to register with the FEC and be subject to greater disclosure requirements. Today's development, hinted at by previous FEC rulings, is that an FEC-registered group, not a 527, can take in unlimited money from individuals, corporations, and unions as long as it does not donate any of that money directly to candidates. It can air ads telling people to vote for candidates, but it cannot give its money directly to their campaigns.

Despite the recent trend, most independent political groups operate under far greater restrictions than Colbert's new organization. Most register with the FEC as PACs, like Colbert's new group. But, unlike his group, most donate money directly to candidates. Because they do, most independent political groups cannot receive more than $5,000 from an individual each election cycle, and they cannot take donations from corporations or unions.

Because Colbert's group will not give any money directly to candidates -- instead airing independent ads to support them -- Colbert can take donations of any size.

He forced the FEC to make this decision by planning to operate as a real political group, not a parody.

"If we'd viewed this as a funny request, that would have been a lot easier," Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a George W. Bush nominee, told Colbert at today's hearing.

In the end, the commission voted 5-1 to approve Colbert's PAC according to guidelines under consideration at today's hearing.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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