This is the final part 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 storming of the FEC in part three, and his quest for secret money in part four.
WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court's central rationale for its dramatic Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling is that expenditures on political speech made by corporations, unions, or individuals cannot corrupt the election process as long as they are made independently of election campaigns.
That's really it: The main rule of the game, according to the Court, is that these new, super-powerful groups cannot coordinate with candidates.
So, of course, everybody's breaking it.
After Nebraska Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson appeared in ads in October paid for by the state's Democratic Party -- and theoretically uncoordinated with his campaign -- the Rove-backed super PAC American Crossroads asked for permission to do the same thing.
The group's letter to the Federal Election Commission even included the following sentence: "While these advertisements would be fully coordinated with incumbent Members of Congress facing re-election in 2012, they would presumably not qualify as 'coordinated communications.'"
American Crossroads' request to the FEC, amazingly enough, was not denied outright -- the dysfunctional commission split 3 to 3, technically not giving the group permission to create the ads, but not rejecting the idea out of hand, either.
For Stephen Colbert, the Comedy Central host who has turned PACs, super PACs and 501(c)(4) groups into the stuff of great comedy, it was almost too easy.
"Just because someone is in my ad doesn't mean that we're coordinating with their campaign, any more than if, you know, just because my penis is in someone's vagina, doesn't mean we're having sex, right?" Colbert asked his straight man and lawyer, Trevor Potter, a former FEC commissioner turned reformer.
In his first foray into illustrating the absurdity of the argument, Colbert cast former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer -- who is running for the Republican nomination for president on a platform of getting money out of politics -- in a super PAC ad about that very issue.
(The ad, incidentally, was hugely effective. Roemer told The Huffington Post that he now gets recognized across the country. "I have somebody stop me every day in an airport in D.C., in New Hampshire, in Iowa -- somebody stops me and says, 'Man, I saw you on "The Colbert Report." You were awesome.'")
Colbert continued to mine this vein of comedy gold after he decided to pursue a possible candidacy for "president of the United States of South Carolina" and was therefore forced to relinquish his super PAC. He gave it to his colleague John Stewart, instead.
Stewart changed the name of the Colbert Super PAC to "The Definitely Not Coordinating With Stephen Colbert Super PAC," despite the fact that the two men apparently spend a fair amount of time giggling with each other while on conference calls with their mutual lawyer, Potter.
The "not" coordinated group has since then made ads attacking Mitt Romney, ostensibly attacking Colbert, and encouraging South Carolinians to vote for Herman Cain as a stand-in for Colbert, who could not get his own name on the ballot.
Colbert may have never been more on point than he is now, in part because the issue of coordination may become one of the most explosive of the 2012 election.
Despite their ostensible adherence to the rules, nearly all of the candidates in the presidential race have an affiliated super PAC -- run, more often than not, by their former aides.
The super PAC supporting former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, credited with delivering the knockout punch in Iowa against former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, is run by three former veterans of Romney's 2008 presidential bid. Texas Gov. Rick Perry's super PAC is run by his former chief of staff Mike Toomey, who also co-owns an island with the former presidential candidate's top campaign adviser. Former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman's super PAC is largely funded by Huntsman's billionaire father. And a super PAC backing Newt Gingrich is run by a former fundraiser for his organization American Solutions for Winning the Future.
Priorities USA, the pro-Obama super PAC, is run by a former White House spokesman.
And despite the ostensible rule against coordinating spending, the FEC recently ruled that candidates for election can still raise money for the super PACs, as long as they do not explicitly ask donors to give more than $5,000 -- the amount that can legally be solicited. This does not mean that donors have to limit the donation to that amount, however -- they are still free to give as much as they desire.
Both parties have taken advantage of this. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have solicited money for Majority PAC, a super PAC devoted to backing Democratic Senate candidates. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have backed the Congressional Leadership Fund, which bills itself as a super PAC helping the GOP hold the House majority. The pro-Romney super PAC has also hosted Romney for a donor dinner.
Fred Wertheimer, the founder of campaign finance reform group Democracy 21, sees this as the ultimate blow to what is left of the integrity of the nation's campaign finance rules.
"For all practical purposes," he wrote in a blog on HuffPost, "these unlimited, corrupting contributions are being given to the presidential candidates. As such, candidate-specific Super PACS are eviscerating candidate contribution limits and restoring the system of legalized bribery that existed in our country in the pre-Watergate era."
Indeed, if that one last shred of campaign finance law -- prohibiting the coordination between groups that can accept unlimited contributions and the candidates themselves -- is no longer enforced, then we seem to be only a fig leaf away from the Nixon-era days of million-dollar payoffs, bribery and organized extortion of companies and individuals.
The only difference: Back then, the total tally of secret contributions was about $22 million.
This time around it could be hundreds of millions.
Video produced by Sara Kenigsberg.
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