There's Nothing Funny About Colbert's SuperPAC Comedian Stephen Colbert started a political superPAC as a joke. But — his bad — it turned out to raise some basic questions about campaign finance law. On Thursday, the Federal Election Commission gave Colbert most of what he'd asked for.

There's Nothing Funny About Colbert's SuperPAC

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Today, Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert showed up at the Federal Election Commission. It was weighing his bid to launch a political action committee. TV camera crews turned out, Colbert tweeted, a crowd gathered, and along the way, the FEC made two significant decisions that could affect non-comedians in the 2012 elections. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: To start at the end of the story...

Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT (Host, "The Colbert Report"): We won. I am a superPAC, and so can you.

(Soundbite of applause)

OVERBY: That's Stephen Colbert, after the normally fractious FEC gave him most of what he'd asked for. Then, with more than 100 fans in front of the FEC, the agency charged with enforcing campaign finance laws, he told a campaign-finance law joke.

Mr. COLBERT: Knock, knock.

Unidentified Group: Who's there?

Mr. COLBERT: Unlimited union and corporate campaign contributions.

Unidentified Group: Unlimited Union and corporate campaign contributions, who?

Mr. COLBERT: That's the thing: I don't think I should have to tell you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

OVERBY: But there's actual substance behind the punchline. Colbert is setting up a superPAC to run campaign ads. The FEC got involved when he asked for an opinion on how to finance the superPAC. His query suggested the possibility of a new loophole, a way for media companies to underwrite commentators with political ambitions.

The commission was glad for the attention. Here's Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub.

Ms. ELLEN WEINTRAUB (Federal Election Commission): Thank you, Mr. Colbert, not only for coming in today and presenting us with this interesting question but for raising the profile on the important issues that we deal with everyday. We...

Mr. COLBERT: You're welcome.

(Soundbite of laughter)

OVERBY: That was one of just two times Colbert spoke during the proceedings. Just for the record, here's the other one.

Mr. COLBERT: We don't know what we're going to do with the ads, where we would place them, because we don't have the PAC yet. You're right in surmising that. That's why I hope to get the PAC, so we can find out.

OVERBY: Confused? OK. The big question was whether Viacom, the company that owns Colbert's show, could financially support everything the superPAC does. Colbert wanted Viacom to be treated as a press entity, that is, exempt from the campaign finance laws. Republican commissioner Don McGahn was sympathetic.

Mr. DON McGAHN (Federal Election Commission): The question as I see it is: Where does commentary end, and where does normal campaign finance law begin?

OVERBY: But McGahn didn't have any support. The commission voted five to one to deny Viacom special treatment. And otherwise, it unanimously supported Colbert. Commission chairwoman Cynthia Bauerly.

Ms. CYNTHIA BAUERLY (Federal Election Commission): Mr. Colbert, you may form your PAC and proceed as the commission has advised in this opinion.

OVERBY: At that point, Colbert left. The commissioners stayed around and unanimously rejected another attempt to loosen the rules. Conservative lawyer Jim Bopp has proposed that federal candidates solicit unlimited contributions for superPACs, and that donors can earmark their contributions to help those candidates.

Even after Citizens United and other recent court rulings, commissioners couldn't see a legal basis for this. Here's Republican Mathew Petersen.

Mr. MATHEW PETERSON (Federal Election Commission): A lot has changed, but not everything has changed.

OVERBY: And speaking of change, Colbert was outside raising money for his superPAC.

Mr. COLBERT: I don't know about you, but I do not accept limits on my free speech.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. COLBERT: I don't know about you, but I do not accept the status quo...

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. COLBERT: ...but I do accept Visa, MasterCard, and American Express.

(Soundbite of laughter)

OVERBY: He was taking checks, too. Peter Overby NPR News Washington

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