This is part three 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 super PAC launch in part two, his quest for secret money in part four, and his mockery of the anti-coordination rule in part five.
WASHINGTON -- In May of last year, with Comedy Central's parent company still threatening to shut down his newly created super PAC, Stephen Colbert took his fight straight to the Federal Election Commission.
The most remarkable thing about the act was not that a comedian, staying in character, submitted a serious request to the FEC, but that he got a majority of the commissioners to agree to anything.
Colbert's parody of a right-wing blowhard may be one of the greatest ongoing jokes in recent television history, but in its own sphere, the modern FEC may be an even bigger one.
Five of the six commissioners are still serving despite the fact that their terms have expired. The three Republican members, seemingly dead-set on undermining what few campaign finance laws remain, have repeatedly deadlocked the commission, essentially preventing it from policing the electoral system.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), as the top Republican in the upper chamber, is by tradition accorded the privilege of picking the Republican commissioners. And McConnell, perhaps the nation's preeminent opponent of campaign finance rules, does not appear to be planning to pick anyone because he seems perfectly happy with the status quo. Even if Obama were to submit five nominees to the Senate for confirmation, McConnell could still stand in the way if those appointments were not to his liking.
Reform groups that support campaign finance regulation have been calling on President Barack Obama to do an end-run around McConnell, on the grounds that the nation must have a cop on the electoral beat. Two of the groups recently wrote in a letter to Obama:
The FEC is widely recognized as a failed, dysfunctional enforcement agency and has itself become a national campaign finance scandal. The refusal of the FEC to properly enforce the campaign finance laws is well known to candidates and political operatives. This has created a "do-anything-you-want approach" to complying with the country's campaign finance laws.
Apparently, however, there is one way to get the FEC to do its job: show up with a lot of cameras and klieg lights, a few great lines, and a big, easily incited audience.
Colbert stormed the FEC's downtown Washington, D.C. office building on May 13 not because of anything the commission had done to him, or because campaign finance rules were too strict.
He went because his corporate bosses at Viacom, Comedy Central's parent company, were still not satisfied even after his PAC became a super PAC, and he needed a so-called media exemption from reporting requirements.
Super PACs can accept unlimited contributions from corporations -- but they still need to report all of those contributions, in-kind and otherwise, to the FEC. And Viacom did not want to get in the business of assigning values to contributions of things such as studio time or a show's staff.
While on air, Colbert asked his lawyer, Trevor Potter, the obvious question: "How do the guys on Fox get away with it?" And Potter explained that Fox is exempt because it is a media organization.
"The media exemption says that if you're a broadcast station, not owned by a candidate or a party" -- "I'm not!" Colbert interjected -- "and you're reporting the news in your normal way of going about business, then you're exempt. You're not making a corporate contribution when you talk about candidates and politics."
Two major reform groups -- Democracy 21 and, ironically, the Campaign Legal Center, which Potter leads -- urged the FEC to limit Colbert's media exemption so that it would not apply to ads he aired on other shows and networks. (That would conceivably have allowed news networks to get into the business of producing campaign ads.)
And six weeks later, in a rare moment of functionality, the commissioners voted 5 to 1 to grant Colbert a limited exemption, saying he does not have to report Viacom's in-kind contributions as long as his ads only run on his show. Having satisfied Viacom with FEC approval for an exemption, Colbert could proceed in the unlimited-donation super PAC big leagues.
Video produced by Sara Kenigsberg.