The Federal Election Commission on Thursday granted faux talk-show host Stephen Colbert a special exemption to establish a corporate-backed political action committee to run ads on his program.
Colbert had asked the FEC for permission to create a "Colbert Super PAC" that would produce and air election advertisements, with the assistance of resources provided by Viacom -- the parent company of Comedy Central, which airs "The Colbert Report" -- without disclosing the extent of Viacom’s assistance.
After the ruling, Colbert, flanked by staffers in red “Colbert PAC” T-shirts, addressed a crowd of hundreds outside the FEC's Washington headquarters.
“The FEC made its ruling, and I’m sorry to say, we won!” Colbert said, prompting cheers from the crowd. "Some have cynically asked if this is some kind of joke,” he continued. “But I don’t think that participating in democracy is a joke. I don’t think that wanting to know what the rules are is a joke.”
He and his staff then began soliciting contributions on the spot.
David Snyder, 31, was one of the first to hand his credit card over to Colbert and authorize a charge of $50. Snyder said he had no guesses as to what kind of candidates his donation would support, but said he trusted Colbert’s judgment.
“I feel confident by watching that we line up politically,” said the small-business owner from Birmingham, Ala., adding that his political inclinations leaned left.
A super PAC is a political action committee that can collect unlimited contributions from corporations, unions and individuals. Those donations, and the committee's expenses, must be publicly disclosed in filings to the FEC.
Colbert had requested a “press exemption” to the disclosure rule as it relates to Viacom, suggesting that the cost of producing and airing the PACs ads falls under the media function of "The Colbert Report," a satirical news program that often deals with political topics.
But Colbert's request for guidance wasn't taken as a stunt by members of the commission.
"If we'd viewed this as just a funny request, then that actually would have been a lot easier," Commissioner Ellen Weintraub told Colbert at the hearing, noting that shows such as "Saturday Night Live" clearly broadcast parodies that are not subject to campaign finance rules.
By a 5-1 vote, the commission granted Colbert a limited press exemption. Viacom may provide undisclosed resources to aid the PAC in creating ads that air on "The Colbert Report." But the commission declared that the PAC must disclose the value of Viacom resources used to create ads that air on other networks, and to maintain the PAC's paperwork.
Colbert's appearance energized the normally sleepy goings-on at the FEC, with his fans gathering early.
"I woke up this morning and watched last night's "Colbert Report" on Hulu. And I thought, "Oh my God, we're in Washington!'" said Caitlin Doorbos, 19.
Margo Pryzby, 45, of Reston, Va., lined up with her 15-year-old son, Jeremy, after learning of the planned appearance. She said she expected the super PAC to be a continuing theme on his show.
"He does see through his gags, and they do her a far-reaching effect," she said. "I don't think we'd be standing here talking about campaign finance" if not for the show.
George Hunt, 22, skipped his community college summer class in Elkton, Md., to catch the comedian's appearance.
Hunt didn't profess a special interest in campaign finance -- "I just wanted to see the guy" -- but said he would consider donating to the PAC if it was established.
"I'd want to support if it went toward Republican candidates," Hunt said. "I'm not paying into it if it's for Democrats."