Determined not to be “the only chump” without a committee to collect “unlimited corporate money,” satirist Stephen Colbert went to the Federal Election Commission last summer to petition for permission to form his own “super PAC.”
He won, and instantly started swiping credit cards as he delivered a knock-knock joke to the throng of fans who’d gathered to greet him.
“Knock knock?” Colbert said.
“Who’s there?” the crowd replied.
“Unlimited union and corporate campaign contributions.”
“Unlimited union and corporate campaign contributions who?”
“That’s the thing,” he said. “I don’t think I should have to tell you.”
Like all super PAC operators, Colbert, the host of Comedy Central’s late-night faux news show “The Colbert Report,” filed forms this week that disclosed the source of the nearly $1 million his super PAC raised last year. It turns out the vast majority of it would have been legal without the much-maligned Supreme Court ruling that prompted the creation of super PACs and has been the butt of Colbert’s jokes.
That ruling declared that limits on independent political spending by corporations and unions were a violation of the 1st Amendment because, as Colbert likes to put it, “corporations are people,” thus they have a right to free speech. Super PACs are a special species of political action committee that emerged shortly after the ruling, when a lower court – drawing largely on the Citizens United decision – declared that individuals could pool unlimited resources to spend on political activity independent of candidates or the parties.
Unlike ordinary PACs, super PACs can accept unlimited amounts of money, they can accept it from anyone – individuals, corporations or unions -- but they cannot pass the money along to other campaigns or committees.
At the time, Democrats and advocates for tighter restrictions on money in politics warned that unbridled spending by corporations and wealthy donors would have a corrupting effect. They also warned that donors would be able to keep their identities secret – hence the punch line of Colbert’s knock-knock joke.
So far, the results have been mixed. Super PACs backing candidates in the GOP presidential contest have collected tens of millions of dollars from wealthy donors, often gathering checks of $1 million or more. Corporations, on the other hand, have been more hesitant about contributing. Disclosure forms filed on Tuesday show that wealthy individuals, not corporations, have accounted for the bulk of super PAC giving. The companies that did give were largely privately held, not major publicly traded corporations.
And despite all the talk about donors secretly laundering their cash through nonprofit front groups, there were very few instances of super PACs receiving money from tax-exempt groups.
“To all the worrywarts out there who said super PACs were going to lead to a cabal of billionaires secretly buying democracy, wrong,” Colbert said on his show earlier this week. “They are publicly buying democracy.”
Citing an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation, Colbert noted that half of the candidate super PAC money came from just 22 donors. But while those super PACs raised large contributions from a small number of donors, Colbert’s super PAC did the opposite.
Just $10,314 of the $824,305 Colbert raised last year came in donations of a size or type that wasn’t allowed before the January 2010 ruling. He collected a measly $714 in corporate contributions: $314 from a company called Bestdamntutoring.com, and $400 from the Sticky Fingers Band, a Rolling Stones tribute band. Just one person – Alex Rigopulos of Belmont, Mass. – gave an amount ($9.600) that exceeded the $2,500 to $5,000-per-person contribution limits for ordinary PACs.
Still, observers say the super PAC served its purpose.
“It’s been a great vehicle for him to not only explain how the system and the laws work, but also to highlight the absurdity of the deregulation of money in politics,” said Paul Ryan, associate legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center. “But the real special interest money is injected into the system to influence real decision-makers…Wealthy America is not necessarily going to dump money into Stephen Colbert’s joke.”
Matea Gold in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.