Stephen Colbert's Super PAC: A Better Tomorrow?

By Anderson, Shannon K. | Pepperdine Policy Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Stephen Colbert's Super PAC: A Better Tomorrow?


Anderson, Shannon K., Pepperdine Policy Review


THE COMEDIAN SHEDS LIGHT ON HOW CITIZENS UNITED HAS LED TO MURKIER WAYS FOR CORPORATE MONEY TO INFLUENCE OUR POLITICAL SYSTEM

Stphen Colbert proclaimed to throngs of assembled reporters and onlookers: "Moments ago the Federal Election Committee made their ruling. And ladies and gentlemen I'm sorry to say, we won! " On June 30, 201 1, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) gave its formal approval for Stephen Colbert to form a political action committee (PAC) that could raise unlimited sums of money to be used on independent political expenditures . Colbert's committee, known alternately as Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow and the Colbert Super PAC, thus became the 1 14th Super PAC - a new and powerful supped-up version of an old campaign financing vehicle - formed in the country since two Supreme Court rulings significantly reshaped the boundaries of what free speech is and who holds the right to it.1 The implications for the upcoming November 2012 election are still not fully known, but so far these changes have enabled a few wealthy donors to exercise great influence in the Republican presidential primary.

Colbert has used Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow to draw attention to these changes in American campaign finance law. As Colbert remarked to the New York Times, his Super PAC "is 100 percent legal and at least 10 percent ethical." Foundational to our political economic system is the right to use our property as we choose, as is the right to say what we want - yet most Americans are squeamish about the idea of a system that combines both these rights without restrictions. Colbert, by highlighting the tension between the right to free speech and the manifestation of wealth as speech, seems to be asking us if we are creating the kind of society that accurately reflects our values as a nation. From this, the reader should question which specific changes is Colbert trying to highlight with his Super PAC. And, given his satiric humor meant to critique our political economic system, what aspects of these changes does Colbert believe Americans should find troubling, and why? But first, a little background on how the Super PAC came to be.

HISTORY OF PACS

As influence of Washington grew following the post-Civil War consolidation of power at the national level, the financial stakes for shaping the outcome of federal elections also grew. With so much power concentrated in the hands of Congress and the President, gaining their favor could mean the difference in legislation that could significantly impact business' and labor unions' bottom lines. Trying to win over politicians with campaign contributions was strategically smart, but as businesses and labor unions sought to do so, the public grew concerned about the potential for corruption and undue influence. According to the FEC website, PACs arose in response to early-20th century legislation that banned corporations and labor unions from making direct contributions from their treasuries to influence Federal elections. To circumvent these prohibitions, in 1944 the Congress of Industrial Organizations (a.k.a. CIO, which would later become part of the AFL-CIO), a labor union, created the first PAC to sponsor the reelection of President Franklin Roosevelt by encouraging their members to directly contribute to the Roosevelt campaign. In this clever adherence to the letter - if not the spirit - of the law by not making contributions directly from the union treasury, the CIO set the precedent for PACs.4 Twenty-seven years later, in response to a growing public distrust in a government seemingly open to corrupting influences, PACs and restrictions governing them became codified into law via the Federal Election Campaign Act (FEC A) of 1971 and three years after that, the FEC formed to enforce this legislation. Ultimately, as this paper will show, these policies only stemmed the tide of money that sought to influence Federal elections. Court cases in the early 21st century would later open the floodgates as the First Amendment was used to equate free spending with free speech - the particular folly of our political system that this author believes Colbert is trying to highlight with his Super PAC. …

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