Explaining Jon Stewart’s Monologue on Campaign Finance

After more than 16 years at the helm of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart hosted his final episode last night. The hour-long show devoted most of its running time to Stewart saying farewell to the correspondents and staffers who have played a part in the show’s history. But Stewart found time to deliver a short monologue on how truth is often obscured in business, policy, and politics. (Because this is a family-friendly Corporate Political Activity Law Blog, we won’t mention the term Stewart repeated throughout the monologue.) One strategy, Stewart explains, is hiding the truth through complexity:

Hey, a handful of billionaires can’t buy our elections, right? Of course not. They can only pour unlimited, anonymous cash into a 501(c)(4) if 50% is devoted to issue education, otherwise they’d have to 501(c)(6) it, or funnel it openly through a non-campaign coordinated Super PAC.

Here’s a quick overview of the campaign-finance concepts that Stewart referenced, which also doubles as a handy primer on the different ways money is raised and spent on political activity.

  • For federal elections, the making of political contributions to a candidate or a political party is subject to both contribution limits and disclosure requirements. The FEC has jurisdiction over these issues.
  • Tax-exempt organizations are not subject to the FEC’s jurisdiction. Instead, the IRS ensures that 501(c) organizations do not engage in prohibited political activity. A 501(c)(3) organization, for example, may not engage in any political activity but may engage in limited lobbying expenditures. In contrast, a 501(c)(4) or a 501(c)(6) may carry on partisan political activity so long as political activity is a secondary—and not the primary—activity of the organization. The IRS has expressed an apparent tolerance of political activity by 501(c)(4)s and 501(c)(6)s, so long as the political activity is less than 50% of the organization’s total activity. A 501(c)(4) or a 501(c)(6) may also engage in unlimited lobbying expenditures. There are no limits on the money that may be donated to 501(c) organizations and the donations are not subject to disclosure.
  • As we’ve discussed here on the blog, a Super PAC is a political organization that may only make independent expenditures, which means that they are not coordinated with candidates. A Super PAC may raise unlimited funds but it is required to disclose its contributors.

Stewart is right. The world of campaign finance can be complicated. Although he will no longer be around to explain the complexities of campaign-finance law, we will!