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Mr. Colbert Goes to the FEC

The satirist wants to form “a megaphone made of cash”—his own super PAC.
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Video by Brad Shannon of the Huffington Post.

Colbert at the FEC, photo by Nicko Margolies for the Sunlight Foundation

Stephen Colbert enters FEC headquarters.

Photo by Nicko Margolies for the Sunlight Foundation

Even before the Supreme Court handed down its controversial decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (a 2010 ruling that allows corporations to spend unlimited money to influence elections), comedian Stephen Colbert has been using his signature style to lambast the legal findings underpinning the decision: that corporations are people, and that money is speech. During a 2009 show, he pointed out that "corporations do everything people do except breathe, die, and go to jail for dumping 1.3 million pounds of PCBs in the Hudson River."

On May 13, Colbert took his satire to a new level when he went to the Federal Election Commission to file the papers to form his own political action committee, to be called Colbert Super PAC. (Super PACs, officially called "independent expenditure-only committees," became legal following the Citizens United decision. They can accept unlimited donations to influence political elections, though they are prohibited from working directly with campaigns. American Crossroads, a super PAC founded by Karl Rove, is perhaps the best known.)

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"I believe in the American Dream," Colbert told the cheering crowd outside the FEC. "And that dream is simple: That anyone, no matter who they are, if they are determined, if they are willing to work hard enough, someday they can grow up to create a legal entity which can then receive unlimited corporate funds which can be used to influence elections."

While Colbert has joked about forming a super PAC before, he maintains that this time is for real. He presented the FEC with a request for an advisory opinion on whether Viacom (The Colbert Report's parent company) should be reported as a donor if Colbert uses his show's airtime to promote the PAC. The FEC's decision, due in 60 days, may have implications for others with super PACs and media contracts—for example, Rove and Sarah Palin.

Whatever happens, the legal and political complexity involved in Colbert's move highlights the extent to which our political system has changed as it's become more and more open to the influence of corporate cash. As Colbert joked, "we stand here on this historic site, where 250 years ago George Washington filed his papers to form his independent expenditure, non-connected political action committee..."


Brooke Jarvis is web editor for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.

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