Colbert Is Funny, Our Disclosure Laws Are Not

August 30th, 2011 at 3:28 pm | 37 Comments |

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As fellow members of the Colbert Nation are doubtless aware, the latest way for college kids to get their name on television is to donate cash to Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Super PAC. If you do so, your name will scroll at the bottom of the screen as one of the Super PAC’s “Heroes”.

It’s a nice way for a 19-year old GW student to get a new Facebook picture, and everybody who is giving is in on the gag. (D.B. Cooper also apparently gave.) This is all well and good.

Of course, Colbert could have done more than just scroll the names of the Super PAC’s donors. He could have hunted the FEC database for those who gave more than $200 to candidates other than “Rick Parry” (with an A for America) and posted their names, addresses, employers and job titles on his website or scrolled the information on his show. Not so funny anymore.

The purpose of our disclosure laws is ostensibly to prevent corruption. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, yadda yadda yadda. We know the drill. But is it really preventing any corruption for the Federal government to mandate blasting to the world the name and home address of a dentist from Peoria who gave $300 to Michele Bachmann or Ron Paul, candidates who rake in millions in contributions?

Our current disclosure regime has eroded the right to discreet association, a right that the Supreme Court upheld in the seminal cases of NAACP v. Alabama and Bates v. City of Little Rock. In today’s modern world, where the Internet enables us to look at the political contributions of people with names similar to those who email us (not a joke), our disclosure laws are chilling the speech of those who simply wish to express additional support for a candidate with some extra cash. Raising the disclosure threshold would be a “Disclose Act” actually worthy of support.

Originally posted at the Center for Competitive Politics.

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37 Comments so far ↓

  • balconesfault

    Ummm … why?

    I would hope that in America, where we all believe in the value of the Democratic processes, nobody would act prejudicially against someone because a $250 contribution to a certain politician can be found on the internet … the same as I hope that nobody will go breaking car windows in the parking lot just because a vehicle still has an Obama or McCain bumper sticker on it.

    However, the databases are useful for seeing where politicians get their support. I’m not so concerned about who the dentist in Peoria supports … but if a politician is suddenly pushing for legislation that will be highly profitable to the dental community, it’s nice for the public to know if 30% of his contributions came from dentists.

    • kuri3460

      I think his point is that when the amount of money involved increases, the likelihood of corruption increases, so if the goal of Federal campaign laws is to prevent corruption in a meaningful way, than the current disclosure laws are completely backwards.

      How much corruption are we preventing by forcing Barack Obama to disclose every $100 donation his campaign recieves while we simultaneously do nothing about the millions and millions of dollars being donated to the PACs and Super PACs that support him?

    • Primrose

      I’m torn. On the one hand, if we can’t limit the amount corporations and lobbying groups contribute, then about all we can do is make it clear if a politician is bought and sold and by whom. On the other hand, it complicates job searches since if an employer uses these tools they can discriminate against your political affiliation and none the wiser.

  • ChicaDificil

    I disagree with you. A much bigger problem in our political system is not the $250 donations from the individuals nect door but the fact that too many politicians are in the hands of big corporations and powerful industry/lobbysits because they depend on their big campaign contribution. I don’t understand why not disclosing such donations/fundings are allowed in our political system. In academia, investigators are required to disclose their funding precisely because of potential conflict of interest. I don’t understand why politicians are not required to abide by a similar ethics code.

  • Graychin

    I’m much less concerned with who gives $250 contributions than with who is paying big money for attack ads on TV that run during election season without any public accountability at all.

    Does anyone seriously believe that the political speech of a huge publicly-traded corporation is really the speech of its shareholders?

    • ProfNickD


      Yes: that is what a corporation is, the shareholders.

      • Primrose

        Shareholders often have very limited power, and plenty have none. So the point remains correct.

      • zephae

        Meaning it has no right to spend the money unless it has the expressed written consent of ALL of its shareholders. Otherwise it would be improperly spreading political speech with other people’s money.

      • Graychin

        Corporations are legal entities created by the state, separate and distinct from the shareholders themselves. That is the very purpose of their existence – to build a wall between the shareholders and the business enterprise.

        The owners of a large public corporation can and do change massively from day to day, hour to hour. Very few stockholders have any idea (or concern) about what political activities a small chunk of their portfolios is engaging in.

        So I see that I was wrong. There IS someone naive enough to believe that the political speech of a huge publicly-traded corporation is really the speech of its shareholders.

      • Demosthenes

        That is hilarious. No, a corporation is not its shareholders. It is a separate legal entity, its own legal person, that is why the 14th Amendment has been applied to corporations. Literally the entire reason why we have corporations in the first place is to distinguish the legal person of the corporation from the legal persons who own its stock in whole or in part. Have you ever heard of “limited liability”? Do you even have a GED?

        • ProfNickD

          So some human association exists apart from individual human beings? You collectivists are strange — it’s like saying a team is something other than the players comprising it.

          A corporation is simply a number of individuals (“shareholders”) who have voluntarily formed an association to pursue some goal — the uniqueness of a corporation is that the limit of the financial liability of these individuals is the capital they have invested into the corporation.

          But they do not “lose” any rights that they otherwise possess as individuals: a corporation cannot have its property searched without a warrant or its property seized without due process. Similarly it should not lose its right to engage in political speech any less so than any individual.

        • Primrose

          We collectivists. Now your resorting to pointless phrases which means you realize you are wrong about the legal standing of corporations. Also, employees lose their rights in corporations so you are wrong there too.

        • Frumplestiltskin

          Do you think that Citgo (and Hugo Chavez) has equal rights in America as American citizens? Are you that much of a corporate toady? Certainly Citgo can advertise and employ lobbyist but you are batshit insane if you think they should be able to do this all undercover with no reporting of their donations.

        • Graychin

          Corporations are creatures of state governments (and sometimes the federal government). As such, they would logically have only those rights which the states in which they do business choose to give them under applicable state law. There is no God-given right to operate a business in corporate form with special legal protections for shareholders – only state laws permitting it. (“States” are “people” too – aren’t they?)

          Given this basic fact, it is absurd to believe that corporations have rights under the Fourteenth Amendment equal to the rights of natural persons, over-riding state law in all fifty states and other American jurisdictions.

          If you are interested in learning about how this bizarre doctrine came to be, here is a good place to start:

        • Demosthenes

          A corporation is simply a number of individuals (“shareholders”) who have voluntarily formed an association to pursue some goal


          A corporation is a legal person. This is not a matter of “collectivism” vs. whatever you think your view is, this is not subjective, this is not a matter of interpretation, this is a matter of very basic legal principles. Voluntary associations may be incorporated, but once they have been incorporated they are a corporation (that is, a legal person) and not merely an association. If you don’t understand that, you really aren’t qualified to be taking part this discussion, far less qualified to teach anyone anything.

      • animal

        Maximum Security Prisons are people too.

  • Smargalicious

    Colbert is an example of how our values as a nation are totally rotten.

    We’re doomed.

    • Rabiner

      Its because he’s parroting conservative values.

      • Smargalicious

        No, it’s because he’s a phucking parodist fool like John Stewart and most young folks think he’s a newsman.

        • animal

          Do you think that most young people can’t decide for themselves what is news and what is humor?
          “Young kids these days don’t know anything about reality . . . when I was a kid news was not phucking parodied; It was a real man’s sport, not run by some phaggots from the drama club.”

        • ProfNickD

          Colbert is a court jester, like Stewart and Maher. They’re literally fools.

        • Smargalicious

          Thank you.

        • animal

          Of course they are, you are pointing out the obvious: They are professional comedians and are on a channel called Comedy Central. One of Colbert’s lasts gigs before his stint as a “phucking” parodist was as a repressed homosexual teacher to a 40 year old former crack addict who returns to high school. He is a self proclaimed jester and millions of people find him hilarious. Why does it bother you that so many people think he is so funny? And why does Smargalicious think “young people”, which I presume must mean non-republicans who have a sense of humor, do not have the ability to distinguish for themselves what is humor and what is news?

  • ProfNickD

    Funny how the country made it 187 years without compelling the financial supporters of federal candidates to disclose that fact — and can anyone say with a straight face that our politics is less corrupt since the creation of such disculosure laws?

    So: we still have political corruption, perhaps even more so, but we have lost our ability to keep our political choices private.

    • Demosthenes

      Corporate law was a radically different entity in the 18th century, because “corporations” as such did not really exist in the way they did from the early part of the 20th century until the present. Back when the Constitution was written, they still had trade guilds, and apart from quasi-governmental institutions like the East India Company there were no “multinationals.” Your argument is only valid if history had ended in 1789.

      • Frumplestiltskin

        For Nickyd I am afraid it has. He is fine with Citgo (a Venezuelan company) being able to throw money around covertly, the same with Haier (a Chinese one) I could go on and on, but it would never register for Nickyd

      • cryptozoologist

        i think francis fukuyama might have argued that history did end in 1789 ;-)

  • TJ Parker

    All Hail Steven Colbert! Mighty defender of the Constitution and blessed of God.

    At least if he holds massive prayer rallies to cure draughts, they don’t get worse!

  • Oldskool

    Maybe you’re making this point, I really couldn’t tell, but, I think Colbert is ridiculing disclosure as it exists now.

  • zephae

    I’m a little uneasy about giving out people’s home addresses and on the fence about employer and job title, but I have no problem with being able to find people’s names and contributions to candidates. People have every right to their political speech, but I also have the right to know where a politician’s money comes from.

    However, I do have a problem with the fact that corporations can dump unlimited money into political organizations. Personally, I think businesses, all businesses, should be banned from giving money to political campaigns or PACs. If you want to support a candidate or cause, use your own money, not other people’s. If you happen to have a company that’s not incorporated, go ahead and pull out some money from it and spend it yourself, but otherwise, no way. It’s ridiculous to me that we would put people in the situation of potentially making decisions in their financial interest that run directly counter to their political interests.

  • Brad Smith

    Imagine if President Bush had introduced the “Patriot II Act,” requiring Americans to report their political activities to the government (perhaps so we could make sure that terrorists were not infiltrating our political parties and gaining influence over our political system). Imagine further that this information was compiled in a database, and made available to government procurement officers, police, the IRS, and hiring authorities; and further, that the database was also made available to private sector employers, lenders, credit agencies, and so on.

    The reaction, of course, would be near hysteria. Yet that is what campaign finance disclosure laws are: a government mandate that your political activity be reported to the government, where it is placed in a database available to government officials and private actors alike.

    That is why such disclosures should not be mandated in our political system.

  • Rabiner

    “Imagine if President Bush had introduced the “Patriot II Act,” requiring Americans to report their political activities to the government (perhaps so we could make sure that terrorists were not infiltrating our political parties and gaining influence over our political system).”

    Except it is the candidate that must report not the person giving. This is to provide the public with information on why a candidate may have certain policy positions. If the candidate is being funded by a particular industry I think there is a public interest for them to know that it is influencing the candidate’s policy positions that affect that industry.

  • cryptozoologist

    i think what is lost in all of these discussions on campaign finance disclosure is what candidates need all that money for. sure some of it goes to pay for staff, bumper stickers, weenie roasts, ice cream socials, and yard signs, but by far most of it goes into television advertising. so all of this money is being shoveled into the maws of media conglomerates who in turn lobby the fcc to weaken rules prohibiting them from owning even more media outlets so they can keep taking more and more money for political advertising. they don’t even have to bid for their licenses to use the public airwaves!

  • Carney

    I only give $199.99 at the most, for just this reason. I have a family.

    • Rillion

      Smart move, otherwise you and your family might have your names held up for ridicule, just like Colert did to his donor Suq Madiq and his family members, Liqa Madiq and Munchma Quichi.

      • Smargalicious

        Har dee phucking har har.

        Colbert made a fool out of himself and Congress not long ago; it was fitting.