If you’ve caught an episode of Colbert Report in the last few months, odds are that you’ve heard Mr. Colbert share the latest news on his Super PAC. The bits — done in Colbert’s patented deadpan — are truly brilliant, and they expose the enormous influence of money on American politics. But, while Colbert has done a masterful job entertaining his audience, the reality of the situation isn’t so funny. Let me give you a quick rundown:
What is a Super PAC?
A political action committee (PAC), which can raise unlimited sums of cash from corporations, unions and individuals.
What do they do with the money?
The money is used to influence voters to vote for or against particular candidates or issues during an election, often by producing extremely negative and grossly exaggerated ads, like this one and this one.
That’s crazy! There has to be some law against this, right?
Well there was…But then in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that limiting the amount of money corporations and unions could spend during elections was a limit on free speech, a right guaranteed by the first amendment of the U.S. constitution. The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission struck down previous restrictions for corporations and unions and paved the way for the creation of the Super PAC.
Before the Citizens United case, corporations or unions would set up their own political action committees and donate funds to a political candidates, political parties or other PACs — however all of these donations were limited. The 2010 landmark decision made it legal for corporations, unions and individuals to pour money into these Super PACs that only have a few limitations.
What are their limitations?
I thought you’d never ask. First off, they cannot donate money directly to a candidate campaigns, they must spend it independently. Second, Super PACs are not allowed to coordinate with any candidate.
Well that’s not so bad then, right?
Well, they’re not technically allowed to communicate privately with candidates, but if a candidate says something publicly the Super PAC can certainly take direction from those. For example, Newt Gingrich consistently hammers Mitt Romney for being too progressive; not surprisingly the pro-Newt Super PAC recently released this ad:
I love Stephen Colbert now more than ever. Not only has his Super PAC added a great deal of laughs to my evening, but, through satire, he’s showing millions the serious problems with campaign finance.
If absolute power corrupts absolutely, then limitless cash corrupts without limits.