This is the first part of a five-part series by The Huffington Post about Stephen Colbert's ongoing explanation of the nation's campaign finance laws. Read about his super PAC launch in part two, his storming of the FEC in part three, his quest for secret money in part four, and his mockery of the anti-coordination rule in part five.
WASHINGTON -- Two years after the Supreme Court voided many of the country's bedrock campaign finance laws, much of the American public is still confused by the change -- and stupefied by the often-impenetrable jargon that frequently encumbers any discussion of the topic.
But one public figure has managed to pierce the veil of dullness to actually demonstrate -- in an electrifying way -- just how dangerous and corrupt the current system of political campaign financing has become.
In an indication of the desperate state of campaign finance laws -- and the mainstream media -- that person is a comedian: Stephen Colbert, who plays a right-wing blowhard on the Comedy Central show "The Colbert Report."
Colbert has spent much of the past year on a crusade to accept unlimited contributions from corporations, unions and individuals in order to make political statements and lavish himself with luxuries. In so doing, he may have helped bring the troubling issues surrounding campaign finance to the public's attention more than either the reform community or traditional media.
The comedian has often used his on-air persona's actual participation in events to help educate his viewers about what he says are the craziest elements of the United States' political system. This journey began on March 30, 2011, when Colbert announced on his show that in order to influence the 2012 elections, he would be forming a political action committee.
"If you wanna be a political playa in 2012, you need a PAC," he said.
In his ensuing adventures, such as receiving approval in June 2011 for a super PAC, Colbert has exposed many of the potential dangers of the current campaign financing system, including the influence of PACs and unlimited-donation super PACs, secret contributions by big donors, the failure of regulators, and the coordination between campaigns and supposedly independent groups. On Jan. 12, Colbert took his antics to their next logical conclusion: He declared a run for the presidency of the United States ... of South Carolina.
"It's not very often that money-in-politics questions wind up in pop culture," said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that supports campaign finance transparency. "Colbert takes the most legalistic or complicated aspects of campaign finance and boils it down into a digestible popular form in a way that's unique."
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21 and a longtime supporter of tougher campaign finance regulation, is also a fan. "I think Colbert has made a real contribution to educating a broader public about the dangers involved in our current campaign finance system," he said.
Colbert's personal appearances before the Federal Election Commission and the attention he has generated on the subject even garnered the praise of FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, who thanked Colbert for "shining a little light on this obscure corner of the federal government."
ABOUT THOSE PACS
Forming a PAC seemed an appropriate starting point for Colbert. The committees have traditionally been used to provide a vehicle for a group of people -- employees of a corporation, members of a union, supporters of a political figure -- to pool their money for campaign contributions or independent expenditures in support of the election of candidates.
The first PAC dates back to 1944, but their use exploded in the 1970s and the 1980s.
As he signed the forms to create his own PAC in March, Colbert joked about what else he could do with the money he raises.
"Let's say I'm Sarah Palin and I've got a couple of million dollars in my PAC there. Can I use that to, like, take private jets someplace?" Colbert asked his guest and lawyer Trevor Potter, a former FEC chairman and counsel to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during his 2008 presidential run.
Potter, who has since become Colbert's campaign finance straight man, responded with a smile, "You can!"
A common criticism of PACs connected to political figures is that they can be used to pay for things like luxury travel with funds contributed by other people. A PAC belonging to former Republican vice presidential candidate Palin, for instance, provided tens of thousands of dollars for her to travel to Israel and to take private jet trips across the United States
As Colbert has demonstrated, forming a PAC can be as easy as filling out a form and asking for money.
Video produced by Sara Kenigsberg.