Federal Election Laws Become Even More Absurdby Doug Mataconis
There’s little doubt that pretty much everyone in America who’s paying attention realizes that Stephen Colbert’s recently announced run for the White House is an elaborate joke. A well-played, funny, timely joke that is already pointing out the absurdity of the political system, but, still, a joke.
Well, everyone that is except perhaps the people at the Federal Election Commission:
Federal law bars corporations from contributing to candidates, either through donations or in-kind contributions such as free use of goods or services.
Media organizations are permitted to feature presidential candidates in covering campaigns.
But no precedent exists for a television network promoting and fostering a candidacy of one of its own talk-show hosts, said Lawrence M. Noble, a former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission. And comedian Pat Paulsen’s 1968 candidacy predated current campaign finance regulations.
“The real problem comes in the fact that he actually has his own show, talking about his campaign, paid for by a network,” Noble said. “These are the kind of things on slow days you’d debate until the late afternoon at the FEC, but there are serious questions that come up. In theory, he could end up having some campaign finance problems.”
While he has talked about his candidacy publicly only in character — as the combative faux-talk-show host who favors “truthiness” on “The Colbert Report” — Colbert is taking formal steps that are consistent with an actual presidential candidacy.
He has begun collecting signatures to get himself placed on both the Democratic and Republican presidential primary ballots in South Carolina.
And while he has said he’s in the race to run, not to win, he has talked about trying to win delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
“I think a lot of people are asking whether — they say, ‘Is this, is this real,’ you know?” Colbert said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And to which I would say to everybody, this is not a dream, OK? You’re not going to wake up from this, OK? I’m far realer than Sam Brownback, let me put it that way.”
The FEC could consider Colbert’s entire campaign satire, which may allow corporate backing under the exemption that allows media organizations to report and comment on candidates as they choose.
But Colbert’s continued candidacy makes it more likely that he’ll actually have an impact on the election — which makes him difficult to ignore, Noble said.
“Everybody is very cautious, not wanting to take this too seriously, or to say that campaign finance laws are going to stop satire, or what is clearly a joke,” he said. “But he’s trying to get on the ballot, and he could in fact affect the election.”
If the FEC actually does start regulating Colbert’s campaign, then it would point out even further the absurdity of campaign finance laws. It’s already been well-established that the laws themselves do nothing to limit actual campaign fundraising — the first Presidential election after McCain-Feingold passed was, by all accounts, the most expensive in American history and the 2008 election looks to surpass it easily. The limits themselves serve no purpose other than to encourage people to find ways to circumvent them, such as making donations in the name of their children in order to get around the limit on individual contributions. And every time a loophole is closed another one is found.
The solution isn’t more government regulation of campaign donations. Instead, we need to eliminate those requirements completely except for one — the requirement that all candidates for Federal office make complete disclosure of all donations received. That way, we will all know where everyone’s money comes from and can judge the candidates accordingly. Putting more power in the hands of the regulators just creates a system that is more friendly to incumbents and not at all helpful to voters.
H/T: James Joyner