Columns / Discourse / January 18, 2012

Voice of Reason: Breaking free from the PAC

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “My way of joking is to tell the truth. It’s the funniest joke in the world.”

As anyone watching the 2012 electoral circus can attest, the truth remains pretty damn funny. Modern-day Shaws have been picking up on the comedic possibilities inherent in our electoral process, perhaps none more successfully than late-night comedic genius Stephen Colbert.

Months ago, Colbert went through the trouble of forming his own political action committee, or SuperPAC, which he called Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. Funded by donations from the show’s often cult-like fan base, Colbert had previously been using it for stunts such as ads that ran in Iowa encouraging voters to write in a misspelled version of Rick Perry’s name.

However, following a tongue-in-cheek poll in South Carolina that revealed he would be the choice of some five percent of the state’s voters, a level exceeding the now-departed Jon Huntsman, Colbert decided to throw his hat into the race, more or less, which left open the question of what was to become of his SuperPAC, as candidates cannot direct their own SuperPACs.

Lucky for him the process is simple. Colbert’s lawyer, brought on-screen to ensure the legality of everything transpiring, was having a hard time keeping a straight face as he told Colbert what he needed to do to transfer control of the SuperPAC to fellow comedian Jon Stewart, which essentially consisted of signing a single form and a promise not to coordinate strategy in any way with the SuperPAC.

Colbert’s stunt showed the state of campaign finance, which can only really be described as laughable, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of 2010, in which it struck down limits on corporate financing of election advertising, directly leading to our current SuperPAC madness.

Now any individual is allowed to register a PAC, solicit donations and spend the money as they see fit, theoretically independently of the campaign. They do not have to report who their donors are, be they individuals, labor unions, corporations or whoever.

“Non-coordination” can only really be properly written in quotation marks with how ridiculous it has become. The Super PAC Restore Our Future is not coordinating with Mitt Romney’s campaign under the unbiased leadership of Romney’s lawyer. Make Us Great Again, the Rick Perry version, is run by Perry’s ex-chief of staff, who co-owns a private island with the man in charge of strategy for the Perry campaign.

There remain pesky requirements for these Super PACs to disclose their donors, but such rules are being circumvented. For one thing, the next required disclosure date is Jan. 31, which means that it will not be revealed whose ads are blanketing South Carolina and Florida’s airwaves until after those states finish their primaries, and in all likelihood Mitt Romney has locked up the nomination.

Even with the mandated reporting, Restore Our Future pulled the clever trick of forming a front corporation called W Spann LLC, which existed for exactly three months and never conducted a single piece of business. Instead, it donated $1 million to Restore Our Future and ceased operations.

W Spann LLC was duly reported as a donor, though the public will probably never know where that money is actually coming from. Lucky for Restore Our Future (and Mitt Romney!), just because the money is untraceable doesn’t mean it can’t be spent to influence our political process.

The basic truth is that it is now possible for shadowy donors to dump unlimited money into political campaigns in America. “Non-coordination,” even if it weren’t an utter charade, doesn’t change this basic fact. If I want to support the Romney campaign, does it really take any sort of strategic direction for me to realize that it might be a good idea to run ads attacking Newt Gingrich?

We should be thankful that we have Stephen Colbert to show us quite clearly that we are getting the best government that money can buy.

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