James Madison once wrote, “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” By exploiting loopholes in campaign finance law, special interests have already succeeded in denying the public of essential information about the sources of money funding political speech. A farcical attempt by one group to keep the public in the dark while also coordinating its message with candidates makes for good political comedy now, but will lead to tragedy if our elected officials begin to feel the full corrupting influence of unlimited, undisclosed, corporate contributions.
In the latest installment of Stephen Colbert’s intrepid quest to expose the absurdities of campaign finance non-regulation in the post-Citizens United era, the comedian recently discussed a new attempt by Super PACs to circumvent the few constraints that remain on their electioneering activities. The Super PAC American Crossroads recently submitted a request to the Federal Election Commission seeking permission for federal candidates to appear in its purportedly “independent” ads. The group acknowledged that ads featuring candidates would be “fully coordinated with incumbent Members of Congress facing re-election in 2012.” After all, a Super PAC would obviously have to share a script and discuss the contents of an ad with a candidate in order for her to appear in it. Nevertheless, American Crossroads would like the FEC to issue an advisory opinion stating that such ads would not qualify as “coordination.”
As the Brennan Center argued in a comment to the FEC, this position runs afoul of “[c]onstitutional law, federal statutes, and common sense.” Fortunately, common sense was no barrier to Stephen Colbert, who rose to the challenge and submitted a comment to the FEC in support of American Crossroads’ request. As Colbert wrote, “The candidate would merely be appearing as a paid spokesperson, who, coincidentally, is closely aligned with the candidate that he or she also is.” To illustrate the paper-thin separation between supposedly independent Super PACs and the candidates they support, Colbert offered an illuminating metaphor:
For example, an ad in which the Kool Aid man decries our nation-wide childhood thirst problem would not necessarily be an ad for Kool Aid brand juice drink. That being said, would a tall glass of Kool-Aid solve that thirst problem? To quote one expert: “Oh, yeaaahhhh!”
Colbert’s letter far and away outstrips the competition for funniest public comment to a regulatory agency, but even the comedian’s most ardent fans recognize that the consequences of a ruling in favor of American Crossroads are far from amusing. After Colbert emailed his comment to supporters of Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow (Colbert Super PAC), hundreds of individuals emailed the FEC calling for the agency to deny American Crossroads’ request.
As one civically-engaged student wrote, “As a young citizen of this country, I shudder to think of the ferocity at which campaigns are currently forced to solicit donations—the thought that they will be fighting for an even bigger chunk of shadowy money absolutely terrifies me….I hope we can find ways to avoid exacerbating this problem.”
Comedians and middle-school students don’t constitute what one would describe as usual suspects for submitting public comments on advisory opinion requests to the FEC. But the legal gymnastics that groups like American Crossroads are performing to subvert campaign finance regulations touch a nerve with large numbers of Americans. A request as absurd as American Crossroads’ belongs properly in the realm of farce, and the FEC should heed the outpouring of opposition and refuse to further expose our democracy to the tragic consequences of outright corruption in the political process.