🖤 Donations of all sizes power our public service journalism Give Now
Campaign Trail

How to be a super PAC, like Stephen Colbert

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Jan 20, 2012

CORRECTION: The original version of this story misstated the anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. It is the second anniversary. The text has been corrected.

Kai Ryssdal: A quick glance at the calendar tells you that today makes it one year until Inauguration Day 2013. Tomorrow, as it happens, is the two-year anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling that might help decide who winds up taking the oath next January. Citizens United, as it’s known, made unlimited corporate and union political contributions legal. And that in turn paved the way for a whole new breed of political action committee. They’re called super PACs. We’ve been talking about them all week. They can raise and spend as much as they want on almost anything they want.

Which, when you think about it, would be a nice thing to have. Marketplace’s Nancy Marshall-Genzer came up with a personal super PAC how-to.

Nancy Marshall-Genzer: I was treasurer of my eighth grade class. I told my classmates I wanted to be treasurer because I liked money. I won in a landslide. So, what if I want to seek higher office again? And get a super PAC to support me? Hey everybody’s got a political action committee at their back: President Obama, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich — even comedian Stephen Colbert. I’ll look to him for inspiration and guidance.

Stephen Colbert: We did it! I am a super PAC, and so can you!

OK. I’m fired up. So I head over to Trevor Potter’s office. He’s Colbert’s campaign finance lawyer. And a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, or FEC. He helped Colbert set up a super PAC.

Trevor Potter: This is not rocket science. For most people — you want to have a super PAC? Fine, you file a one-page letter.

That letter goes to the FEC. It says you’ll raise money in unlimited amounts. And, presto! You have a registered super PAC.

Super PACs do have to report who gave them those unlimited donations — that is one drawback. But I can get around that by following Colbert again. He had Trevor Potter set up another group, called a 501(c)4. These are interest groups — like AARP. They can run political ads but politics can’t be their primary purpose. And here’s the key thing — a 501(c)4 doesn’t have to disclose its donors.

Colbert: So, without this, I am transparent. Without it, here’s who gave me my money. With it, you know what, your mother gave me my money. Well, I like that Trev!

I like that too because now I can take that anonymous money from the (c)4 and transfer it to a super PAC, which can spend the money promoting a candidate.

Colbert: So I can take secret donations of my (c)4 and give it to my supposedly transparent super PAC.

Potter: And it’ll say given by your (c)4.

Colbert: What is the difference between that and money laundering?

Potter: It’s hard to say.

Now, if you’re a candidate, you can’t have your own super PAC or 501(c)4. And super PACs aren’t supposed to coordinate their actions with candidates. But you can put your former campaign staff or business partners in charge. When Colbert recently decided to explore a presidential run, he turned control of his super PAC over to Jon Stewart.

Colbert: Colbert Super PAC is dead.

Jon Stewart: But it has been reborn as The Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC!

OK, so I’ll have my boss run my PAC. I’ll have a 501(c)4 that’ll pump anonymous money into my super PAC. And there’s just one problem: I’m kidding about my candidacy. But I did teach you a few things about campaign finance, right? That’s what Colbert is trying to do. Campaign finance reformers are delighted. Gabriela Schneider is spokeswoman for the Sunlight Foundation.

Gabriela Schneider: There’s more questions being asked. There’s going to be more engagement. And we can all agree that the system is broken. And we need it to change.

But here’s the thing. Colbert is running a mock campaign. Meanwhile, super PACs for real candidates are really doing all of this. It’s no joke.

In Washington, I’m Nancy Marshall Genzer for Marketplace.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.