How Colbert Gave Campaign Finance Reformers a Fright

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While many enjoyed today's FEC visit by Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert, an unlikely subset of D.C. insiders were deeply worried about it's potential ramifications: campaign finance reformers. On its face, these were the people who seemed most likely to appreciate Colbert's experiment seeking approval of a super PAC: after all, it was widely seen as a clever way of lampooning America's corporate-friendly campaign finance system. But as Politico's Ken Vogel discovered, if the FEC had approved Colbert's request in full, it would have had wide ramifications for America's political system.

"The proposals here would potentially open gaping disclosure loopholes in the campaign finance laws," Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21 and a campaign reform advocate told Politico before the ruling. "Wertheimer is so concerned about what Colbert is doing, in fact, that Democracy 21 has joined with the Campaign Legal Center, another advocacy group, to petition the FEC to reject his request because it could result in the 'radical evisceration' of campaign finance rules," reported Vogel.

National Journal's Sarah Mimms uncovered the same concerns. "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." Thus, there was a groundswell of anxiety leading up to the decision.

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But fortunately, as Andy Kroll at Mother Jones writes, "the FEC gave Colbert his media exemption, but in the narrowest possible way." NPR's Frank James has the details of the ruling:

Certain actions by Viacom, Comedy Central's parent company, would need to be disclosed as in-kind contributions.

If Viacom produces ads that its distributes beyond the Colbert Show, for example, those would need to be reported as in-kind contributions.

Those provisions in t he ruling limit what political figures moonlighting as journalists (such as Karl Rove, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Eliot Spitzer) can do. Kroll spoke with the campaign reformers who were lobbying against the super PAC's approval after the ruling.

In the eyes of reformers, the FEC's narrow decision was the right one. "This is the way the law is now," says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. In a statement, Tara Malloy, associate legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, said, "The impact of today's opinion by the FEC goes beyond Mr. Colbert and his well-known satirical show, and ensures that the numerous television show hosts and commentators who are serious politicians cannot exploit the press exemption."

With that, there was nothing for Colbert and his supporters to do but celebrate:

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