This is part two of a five-part series by The Huffington Post about Stephen Colbert's ongoing exploration of the nation's campaign finance laws. Read about his PAC launch in part one, 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 -- Back in the 1980s and 1990s, political action committees were seen as a huge threat to the sanctity of the electoral process. By leveraging contributions from many individuals, PACs could exert magnified clout.
But their contributions to candidates were still limited -- and those limits seem positively quaint by today's standards.
After creating a PAC in March of last year, it didn't take Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert long to figure out that in his quest for the big bucks, he needed to play in a different league altogether. Thanks to Supreme Court rulings, including the January 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision -- which removed limits on independent spending by corporations and unions for political purposes -- he discovered he could.
One of the rules for traditional PACs is that they cannot accept any money from corporations -- not to mention the unlimited amounts that Colbert had publicly announced he intended to collect. In Colbert's case, this was a particularly urgent problem because Viacom, the company that owns Comedy Central, insisted that he shut down his PAC right away for fear that the company would be accused of making illegal in-kind contributions.
But after turning to his super-lawyer Trevor Potter -- who, Colbert never mentions, founded one of Washington's most effective campaign finance reform groups, the Campaign Legal Center -- Colbert was introduced to the whole new realm of possibilities opened up by the Supreme Court.
Immediately after those Supreme Court rulings, much of the attention was focused on the possibility that corporations would spend vast amounts of money directly from their treasuries on political advertising. Instead, it turns out the big money is flowing into third-party organizations.
In July 2010, the Federal Election Commission responded to the court's new orders by creating a new category for political fundraising groups called an "independent expenditure-only committee." Unlike regular PACs, they can raise unlimited sums from corporations, unions and individuals -- and they can then spend unlimited sums to advocate for or against political candidates. For obvious reasons, they quickly became known as super PACs.
There are only a few rules for super PACs: They have to report their donors to the FEC; they cannot give money directly to candidates; and they can't coordinate with the campaigns -- they must be independent.
Super PACs were a huge new force in the 2010 elections -- raising and spending a whopping $65 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. They are expected to raise and spend many times that in the 2012 cycle.
So a super PAC sounded like exactly what Colbert needed to get Viacom off his back -- and be able to take in the big money. With a modicum of paperwork provided by Potter, and a signature, Colbert PAC was no more. Colbert Super PAC was born.
Video produced by Sara Kenigsberg.
Below, see how folks on Twitter are reacting to Colbert's presidential bid: