“Colbert Super PAC” exposed the troubling realities of money in politics more effectively than any PSA. But the crippling flaws in our campaign finance system that it was created to highlight have not abated in the years since—in fact, they’ve worsened substantially. The massive $144 million that Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls collectively raised in the third quarter of this year doesn’t include the untold millions funneled into their super PACs by deep-pocketed donors. When those numbers are disclosed in January, they will undoubtedly reveal that the money flowing to shifty outside groups is larger than ever. That is not even to count the funds being raised and spent in this election by candidate-allied nonprofit organizations, whose finances we will see, only in part, after the election is over. A little over a year after the Supreme Court’s infamous decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, I appeared on national television to walk Stephen Colbert through the legal intricacies of establishing his super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and his dark money 501(c)(4), Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Shhh. Though my appearances on his show were no more than a few minutes each, during our discussions Stephen demonstrated his uncanny ability to take a complex, nuanced problem and distill it down to the absurd facts at its core. For example, one particularly memorable exchange from my first appearance came after I reminded him of the applicable regulations if he chose to form a PAC.
“Do a lot of people go to jail for breaking the law with their PACs?” he asked.
“No.” I replied.
“Can you name anyone who has gone to jail for breaking the law with their PACs?”
“Not a person.”
“That’s my kind of law!” He concluded, to a burst of laughter from the studio audience.
As is so often the case, while Stephen may have been joking, he was simultaneously making a very serious point. Laws created to ensure transparency, openness and accountability in elections are only effective insofar as they are actually enforced; a legal regime which doesn’t punish past violations and deter future ones can hardly be called a regime at all.