Comedian Stephen Colbert has gained attention for his political satire on new campaign finance rules that were the result of the landmark “Citizens United” U.S. Supreme Court decision. The comedian formed his own super PAC which gave him the ability to raise unlimited funds from undisclosed donors to run political ads, as long as there is no direct coordination with a candidate.
But when Colbert began to weigh his own run for “President of the United States of South Carolina,” he turned over the committee to Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who used the money to run satirical ads in support of Colbert. Professor Frank Askin, founder of the Constitutional Litigation Clinic at Rutgers School of Law-Newark, says the former Colbert super PAC exposes the flaws in the Supreme Court ruling. Askin is a Distinguished Professor of Law, Robert E. Knowlton Scholar,and a member of the National Board of the American Civil Liberties Union since 1969.
Rutgers Today: Can you explain what a super PAC is and how the “Citizens United” U.S. Supreme Court Decision made these committees possible?
Askin: A super Pac can take in all the money it wants. It can take it in from whatever source it wants. Most of it is non-disclosed – you don’t know where the money came from.
Super PACs are partly the result of Citizens United. There was a post “Citizens United” case in the D.C. Court of Appeals that built on it, but all these decisions put together allow these PACs to accept unlimited amounts of money as long as they use it allegedly independently – uncoordinated with candidates. But it is a joke. A candidate’s former campaign manager can run the PAC, so he knows all about the campaign and its plans.
That is why Stephen Colbert can turn his PAC over to Jon Stewart and Jon Stewart can do whatever he wants with it because he is allegedly independent of Colbert. Colbert has done a good job exposing the ludicrousness of the whole thing.
Askin: Political Action Committees have been around for a long time, but they used to have all kinds of restrictions on them. The decisions have basically taken the gloves off.
“Citizens United” created the law that independent spending by corporations and unions cannot be limited. It used to be that corporations and unions could have a PAC, but the PACs could only raise money from share holders or members, and donations were limited to $5,000 a piece. But now all the rules have been set aside so they can collect unlimited money from anybody as long as they are spending it independently and not doing it in coordination with a candidate.
Rutgers Today: Are there any penalties for violating the new campaign regulations? Is the system working the way the court intended?
Askin: The Supreme Court decision said the real answer was disclosure: As long as everyone knows where the money is coming from that will take care of everything. Congress could have passed rules, but the Republicans filibustered it so we have unlimited spending and no disclosure.
Another problem is that the Federal Election Commission is not enforcing anything. The FEC is split between three- Democrats and three- Republicans, so there is gridlock. Committees can do whatever they want. No one is ever going to go to jail over this stuff, believe me.
Rutgers Today: What did the creation of Colbert’s former super Pac and the ads Jon Stewart ran in the South Carolina Primary to support him, reveal about the reality of campaign finance?
Askin: The Colbert Super Pac shows that it is a farce – that the gloves are off. Political people can pretty much raise as much money as they want, and say what they want, and no one is going to stop them. It really is a brilliant thing that Colbert did.