Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert took his vaudeville routine to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) Thursday morning. He emerged from the choreographed hearing with approval from the agency to form what’s called a super PAC, an entity that may raise and spend unlimited funds to blast or boost federal candidates.
Steve Dingledine, a 43-year-old Washington resident, arrived at 5:45 a.m. to catch a glimpse of the faux-newsman. Colbert is a “court jester par excellence,” Dingledine declared, but he said he also hopes that the comedian's shtick will shift public opinion. “The awareness is going to be raised to a point where the loophole cannot be exploited by media companies,” the Colbert groupie said.
What advocates of strict campaign finance regulation call a “loophole,” others call protected political speech under the First Amendment. In May, Colbert submitted an advisory opinion request through an attorney asking the FEC to sanction his political action committee.
The central question was whether Comedy Central’s corporate parent company, Viacom, had to report administrative assistance to the PAC and potential payments to air political ads on other television stations. FEC lawyers submitted three different drafts responding to Colbert, and the agency ultimately approved a compromise version allowing Colbert to claim the “press exemption” to campaign finance law. Viacom must therefore report PAC involvement not relating to the late-night program, including logistical support for the PAC and advertising placement on other networks.
Inside the packed hearing room, Colbert’s request didn’t sound like an effort to open a loophole for laughs. A subdued Colbert was nearly mute as his lawyer, Trevor Potter, blandly answered commissioners’ questions with only brief interjections from his client. After all the hype, Colbert’s appearance seemed anti-climatic, in contrast to his cheering fans waiting outside.
By 9:30 a.m., more than 30 of those fans were standing in line, along with a few campaign finance lawyers and Capitol Hill staffers. Six “coordinators” clad in red t-shirts reading “COLBERT SUPER PAC” arrived with signs to energize the crowd. Four Department of Homeland Security officers, who were there to provide security, told the redshirts that no “signs or protests were allowed” in the FEC hearing room. The redshirts assured the police that they planned to remain on the sidewalk’s de facto free speech zone.
Back inside, only one of the six commissioners broke with his colleagues to question the wisdom of the two-tiered set of rules for media corporations and other companies. Don McGahn, an iconoclastic Republican, challenged the authority of the commission to decide who gets a government-approved press license in an age of creative destruction in the media industry.
The FEC has grappled with the definition of the press for decades. In 1980, the FEC investigated Reader’s Digest for making an “illegal corporate expenditure to negatively influence” the 1980 presidential election after the magazine distributed a video reenactment of the Chappaquiddick car wreck involving then-candidate Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). After a long investigation, the case was dismissed in 1981.
Almost 20 years later, the FEC granted a media exemption to the conservative advocacy group Citizens United, which meant the Republican-leaning group no longer had to disclose its spending on certain production expenses. Citizens United was the plaintiff in the blockbuster 2010 Supreme Court case holding that the government may not restrict the independent speech of companies and advocacy groups. If Citizens United need not disclose its spending on documentaries and certain ads as a press entity, why should Viacom and Colbert have to?
“Commentary is a slippery concept, and I’m having trouble being the one who decides what is commentary and what is not commentary. We’re in an interesting era now, post-Citizens United,” McGahn said, citing bloggers and other non-traditional journalists. McGahn also rejected the notion that corporations gained First Amendment rights in Citizens United, arguing that media corporations have long enjoyed the unfettered ability to engage in political advocacy through editorial boards and TV talking heads.
Campaign finance lawyers have speculated that the FEC’s advisory opinion may spur FOX News or Current TV, an Al Gore-owned network featuring former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, to engage in politics through the super PAC model. McGahn registered his objections by voting unanimously with his colleagues to approve one version of the advisory opinion but withholding his vote from the final version that the FEC officially approved.
Colbert mingled with FEC commissioners and staff in a conference room during a brief recess after the vote. An agency lawyer, who chatted with Colbert in the men’s restroom, asked the comedian about the mass of people waiting for him outside the building. “There are a lot of crazy people out there,” he replied. Colbert emerged from the building just before 11 a.m. to address a throng of 150 or so of those crazies, plus gawking journalists and “federal employees with extremely generous lunch break policies,” as he put it.
“Hello freedom lovers! I am here to represent your voice, so please quiet down so we can all hear what you have to say with my mouth,” he said during the three-minute press conference. “There will be [those] that say, ‘Stephen Colbert, what will you do with that unrestricted Super PAC money?’ To which I say, ‘I don’t know. Give it to me and let’s find out.’”
Colbert finished with a fundraising pitch to prime the pump of his super PAC.
“I don’t know about you, but I do not accept limits on my free speech!” said Colbert, who was chauffeured by an ethanol-guzzling Cadillac. “I do not accept the status quo! I do accept Visa, MasterCard, and American Express—$50 or less please, because then I don’t have to keep a record of who gave it to me.”
Jeff Patch is a writer and political consultant based in Alexandria, Virginia. This column first appeared at Reason.com.