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National Issues

The Colbert Experience, at Law PDF  | Print |  Email
By Bob Bauer   
November 02, 2007

This article appeared on Bob Bauer's Blog and is reposted here with permission of the author.


So the South Carolina Democratic party has concluded that Stephen Colbert may not appear on the Democratic primary ballot. It did not think his candidacy was a laughing matter, and it thought this precisely because the Colbert candidacy was a laughing matter. Colbert could not be serious, hence not a serious candidate; and yet his candidacy was only viable—it really only made sense—if it was not taken seriously. And yet it was serious enough, this candidacy, that the federal campaign finance laws (and the Federal Communications laws) applied with full force and quite seriously.


About the law, there was (serious) disagreement. Not everybody was convinced that the media exemption protected his show. Not everybody was convinced that the exemption helped him much: Colbert’s promotion of his own candidacy, night after night on the corporate nickel, might still yield an illegal corporate in-kind contribution. This was all taken very much to heart, except by Colbert, who appreciated that corporations carrying or sponsoring his show intended no such contribution since his own candidacy was farcical—by design.


It got funnier. Colbert first sought the counsel of a fine Republican election law firm (Wiley Rein) and was told to be careful. Then he turned for advice to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP)—the oddest of choices for advice on loopholes. He was told that his cause was hopeless:  to campaign with corporate support, he had to break the law, and that was that. 


CRP is not the oracle to consult when the chips are down. Candidates facing this kind of legal trouble normally seek refuge from CRP by consulting private practitioners, not vice versa. When the Feds are on the way, you would do better to stick with Jan Baran and to avoid Massie Ritsch.


For many Colbert fans and observers, this entertaining episode has come with instruction about the campaign finance laws. The exchange with Ritsch added disclosure to the list of issues given an airing through the Colbert experience. Ritsch explained CRP’s "Open Secrets" site, and giving an example of the benefits and popularity of the disclosure it offered, he noted that those interested in their neighbors’ contributions history could simply sort the data by zip code and find out what good folks down the street were up to, politically. 


Ritsch is on to something, creepy as it is: most Americans sampling the riches of "Open Secrets" would be more tempted to check up on people they know than to scrutinize the NRA’s or Home Builder’s contributions pattern. Colbert and Ritsch did not go into all this, but it is shame that Ritsch did not have the chance to explain how these neighborly uses of "disclosure" guard against political corruption or its appearance.


Mitt Romney appeared, by video clip, to remind everybody that the rich can manage very well under these laws, which were designed to control the undue influence of money in politics. Where his money is coming from is widely known: it is an open secret. It is, however, "individual money," and this, Ritsch explained to Colbert, is the only kind permitted by campaign finance law in its work of protecting against corruption.


One other clip was shown, this one of Bill O’Reilly, who was taking pleasure in Colbert’s legal difficulties as an aspiring federal candidate. O’Reilly is, and will remain, safe under the news exception.  Colbert was not, until his candidacy in South Carolina—at least his Democratic Party candidacy in that state—came to an end. Colbert has learned that free speech is never entirely free, requiring real sacrifice, but his corporate platform has been restored to him for full use.


A good—and informative—time has been had by all.

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