The Federal Election Commission ruled Thursday that comedian Stephen Colbert's super political action committee may raise and spend unlimited funds while also receiving airtime from his network, Comedy Central, but it avoided a broader expansion of airtime donations.
Colbert — who has renamed his PAC Americans for Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow — has managed to turn the debate about campaign spending limits into a comedy routine as well as an important legal precedent.
He said little during the FEC's open meeting but then walked outside to a crowd of fans to proclaim: "We won!"
The FEC seemed to reach an agreement before the meeting, with five of the six commissioners voting in favor of an advisory opinion that grants Colbert his press exemption request and makes Viacom's airtime exempt from contribution limits and disclosure.
The agreement left the frequently deadlocked agency with little to debate on one of the FEC's highest-profile decisions of the year. Republican Donald McGahn was the only commissioner to vote against the measure, because he favored an interpretation that was less restrictive of both Colbert PAC and Viacom.
"Stephen Colbert is a funny man, but he asked a legitimate question and received a serious answer," wrote Democratic FEC Chairwoman Cynthia Bauerly in a statement following the meeting. "The opinion adopted today does not give him everything he asked for, but it appropriately applies the press exemption consistent with past Commission and court precedent."
The press exemption granted by the FEC to Viacom and Colbert PAC exempts all costs related to the Colbert Report's advertisements and productions from disclosure. But any ads produced by Viacom for other networks or programs would have to be disclosed based on the FEC opinion.
The FEC meeting room, which normally has many vacant chairs, was filled to capacity with TV cameras, reporters and onlookers. But the commissioners did not engage Colbert directly and instead directed questions to his lawyer, former FEC Chairman Trevor Potter.
Colbert did not hint at his opinion of Citizen's United or other campaign finance issues that are being debated during the proceedings. But he may have shed light on his beliefs about disclosure following the event.
"Some people have cynically asked, 'Is this some kind of joke?'" Colbert said in a back-and-forth with a crowd of approximately 200 fans. "I do have one federal election law joke if you'd like to hear it."
Colbert: "Knock, knock."
Crowd: "Who's there?"
Colbert: "Unlimited union and corporate campaign contributions."
Crowd: "Unlimited union and corporate campaign contributions who?"
Colbert: "That's the thing, I don't think I should have to tell you."
Correction: July 1, 2011
An earlier version of this story misstated the position of Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, on the Federal Election Commission decision. Wertheimer has no objection to the FEC ruling in the Colbert case.