In time for Election 2012, a Stephen Colbert super PAC. What is that?

What is a super PAC exactly, and what makes it super? And how might a Stephen Colbert super PAC differ from other super PACs or plain vanilla PACs?

Bill Clark/Roll Call/Newscom
Comedian Stephen Colbert speaks outside of the Federal Election Commission after his hearing to have his Colbert super PAC approved in Washington on June 30, 2011.

Stephen Colbert has a “super PAC.” The Federal Election Commission on Thursday approved his application to form such a political fundraising entity. He celebrated with a balloon drop to patriotic music on “The Colbert Report” Thursday night.

“I am a super PAC, and so can you!” the comedian crowed to his studio audience.

But what is a “super PAC” anyway? Is it like a regular political action committee, only with a nicer office? Are its donors richer? Must its employees wear capes.

No, no, and no. But the Stephen Colbert news got us to wondering how many people understand campaign finance basics. The law in this area is pretty complicated, after all. We’ll do our best to try to disentangle it.

Political action committees have been around since the 1940s, pointed out journalist Elizabeth Drew in her 1983 classic, “Politics and Money.” They began as associations organized by labor unions to bundle together their members’ campaign donations. Some old-line trade groups such as the American Medical Association had PACs as well.

But they didn’t really take off until Congress passed the 1974 law that established the Federal Election Commission, provided for public financing of presidential campaigns, and generally set the boundaries for the modern US political cash system. With big donations from wealthy individuals banned, PACs suddenly looked like a great way to channel money. By the end of 1974, 600 PACS had registered with the new FEC. By 1982, there were 3,400. Today there are about 4,600.

Nowadays there are two kinds of regular, plain vanilla, nonsuper PACs: connected and unconnected. Connected PACs are associated with unions, corporations, or other groups. They take money only from individuals who belong to the group in question. Unconnected PACs are – you guessed it – not associated with another organization. They’re organized around issues, or ideologies, or even members of Congress.

Individuals can give only $5,000 a year to a regular PAC. In turn, regular PACs are limited to hard-money donations to candidates ($5,000 annually), parties ($15,000 annually), or other PACs.

Super PACs are a new breed created after several 2010 Supreme Court decisions that struck down some restrictions. They’re “super” because there is no limit to how much money they can receive from an individual, corporation, or union.

They’re limited in that they can’t give money directly to candidates to help in elections. However, they can spend unlimited amounts advocating for or against political candidates on their own.

Capes are optional.

Campaign finance experts worry that super PACs will allow rich individuals or corporations to have an undue influence on US politics. (Yes, we know, that’s happened before.) Colbert, for his part, said he doesn’t know what he’ll do with any funds he collects.

“Give it to me, and let’s find out,” he said Thursday.

The new Colbert super PAC already has a website, and it’s open for donations, Colbert noted.

“Please donate, nation, because you can’t spell ‘donation’ without ‘nation’ and ‘dough’, he said.

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