When the Citizens United decision was handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in January, 2010, the most common criticisms were:
1. Corporations are not citizens.
2. It will increase the already disproportionate role of money in politics.
3. There is no requirement for identifying the donors to the SuperPACs that worked on behalf of candidates. Money would now come into the political system that could not be traced.
A common misconception about the ruling was that there would be a firewall between the actual campaign committees for candidates and the SuperPACs that worked parallel to, but distant from, the campaign committees.
As is the case with much of the news, it takes comedians such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to shine light on what is hidden from much of the public. When Colbert began his semi-facetious campaign to run for president of “the United States of South Carolina,” he quickly determined that he could vastly increase money available for his race if he had a SuperPAC to complement his regular campaign committee. With the help of friend and colleague Jon Stewart and former Federal Elections Commission Chairman Trevor Potter, Colbert completely dispelled the myth that there was strict separation between a campaign committee and a SuperPAC.
Part of Colbert’s shtick is being a control freak. If he were to permit a SuperPAC to be established on his behalf, could he control both the regular campaign committee and the SuperPAC? To find the answer to this question and others, he called upon a true expert in Potter. With crocodile tears flowing, Colbert petulantly accepted the reality that he could not be chairperson of both committees. But as revealed in the video clip below, virtually everything else that Colbert wanted to control both his campaign and the SuperPAC was legal.
Colbert: Can I run for president and keep my SuperPAC?
Potter: No, you cannot be a candidate and run a SuperPAC. That would be coordinating with yourself. You can’t have the PAC, but you can have it run by someone else.
[Jon Stewart enters]
Colbert: Jon, are you here to offer to take over Colbert SuperPAC?
Stewart: I would be honored. But can we do this, because you and I are also business partners?
Colbert: Trevor, is being business partners a problem?
Potter: Being business partners does not count as coordination, legally.
Stewart: I assume that there are reams of complicated paper work that need to be executed before we transfer the reins of power.
Potter: I brought the one document with me.
Stewart: It’s double-spaced.
[Colbert and Stewart each sign once]
Colbert: Colbert SuperPAC is dead.
Stewart: But it has been reborn: The definitely not coordinating with Stephen Colbert SuperPAC, making a better tomorrow, tomorrow. Now that I have the SuperPAC, the money, can I run ads on behalf of Stephen Colbert, perhaps attacking his opponents who I don’t believe in at all?
Potter: Yes you can, as long as you do not coordinate.
Stewart: I’m busy. Can I legally hire Stephen’s current SuperPAC staff to produce these ads that will be in no way coordinated with Stephen?
Potter: Yes, as long as they have no knowledge of Stephen’s plans.
Colbert: Well that’s easy; I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. From now I’ll just have to talk about my plans on my television show and take the risk that you might watch it.
The bottom line is clear. The loopholes that allow official campaign committees and SuperPACs to work together are as large as the ones in Mitt Romney’s safety net for the poor. As Colbert says in his final line, all he has to do is publicly state his plans and Stewart can take those coordination orders. This isn’t just comedy theory. Newt Gingrich actually gave a speech in which he said what he would like his SuperPAC to do. To date there have been no negative repercussions from that because he is following the guidelines as outlined by an honorable former chairperson of the Federal Elections Commission.
So if you thought that the one limitation on runaway campaigns in Citizens United is that official campaigns and SuperPACs cannot coordinate, just watch them do it.