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FEC Seeks to Clarify Rules for Super PAC

The Federal Election Commission released two major draft opinions on Friday to address questions surrounding the operation of new super political action committees, which can raise and spend unlimited funds.

One opinion answers questions from the Democratic groups Majority PAC and House Majority PAC that pertain to whether super PACs may use federal candidates and party officials to raise unlimited money from corporations, unions and individuals in light of recent judicial rulings and agency opinions. The other, a 34-page draft opinion, deals with legal questions about a PAC formed by comedian Stephen Colbert.

The request by the Majority PACs could have a huge impact on the 2012 elections. The draft opinion states that super PACs may not use federal officeholders, candidates and party officials to solicit unlimited donations from corporations, unions and nonprofits for independent expenditures. But such federal candidates and party leaders could attend events where such solicitations occur.

This advisory opinion request stems from the legality of a new group called Republican Super PAC, which announced it would be using federal candidates to solicit unlimited money from corporations, unions and individuals. The Democratic request takes on this group headed by campaign finance lawyer James Bopp Jr., who initiated the Citizens United v. FEC case.

Meanwhile, the agency is taking special steps to accommodate a media frenzy at its meeting next week. Colbert is expected to appear with his lawyer — former FEC Chairman Trevor Potter — at Thursday’s FEC’s regular meeting if the item is debated.

In May, Colbert asked the FEC for an exemption his new super PAC, which he wants to use in the 2012 elections. The exemption would mean Comedy Central and its parent company, Viacom, would not be considered to be giving Colbert’s PAC a corporate donation by allowing him to discuss the PAC on TV.

The FEC’s decision on Colbert PAC could have some broad implications affecting the media and other major political players such as Karl Rove, who has appeared on TV news shows to plug American Crossroads, a conservative super PAC with which he is affiliated.

It is unclear whether Colbert will get what he wants, based on the initial draft opinions.

The FEC’s first draft green-lights Colbert’s creation of a super PAC, but Viacom would still have to disclose any political or campaign spending not related to the show. If approved by the agency, any spending for unrelated costs by Viacom would be considered in-kind donations and would have to be disclosed.

The second draft grants Colbert his press exemption request and makes Viacom’s airtime exempt from limits and disclosure.

It is not unusual for the FEC to put out conflicting drafts on the same advisory request, and it is possible other drafts could be released before the commission’s vote.

Both Colbert’s and Majority PAC’s requests come in the wake of a surge in the creation of super PACs and other groups planning to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money this cycle.

While these opinions still need a four-vote majority from the six-member commission to be legally binding, the drafts released attempt to address a number of recent judicial rulings that have left many questions going into the 2012 election.

This has become more difficult in recent months as the FEC has split votes along party lines. Less than two weeks ago, the agency’s efforts to implement the nearly 18-month old landmark Citizens United ruling hit a road block when the FEC could not agree on what questions should be considered in its rulemaking.

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