If 2012 is the year when the independent expenditure groups known as Super PACs went mainstream, it could also be the year when an imperfect tool—the bilateral candidate pledge—emerged as a way to limit their power.
This week, Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, a Republican, and his likely Democratic opponent Elizabeth Warren have signed a pledge aimed at curtailing the influence of the outside money groups on their race for the Senate.
The so-called “People’s Pledge,” was first proposed by Brown last week and Warren accepted it on January 23. According to the Boston Globe, some of the groups—mostly those supporting Warren’s candidacy—are promising to comply, at least for now.
The pledge is quite similar to one publicly proposed two weeks earlier by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) to his one-time colleague and current opponent, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys).
On January 5, speaking at the first debate between candidates running in California’s new 30th congressional district, Sherman proposed that he and Berman promise to donate to the U.S. Treasury an amount of money equivalent to any expenditures made by Super PACs on behalf of their respective campaigns.
The Brown-Warren pledge is slightly different—the candidates are committing their campaigns to donate only half as much as is spent by any outside group, and the donations are to go to a charity of the opposing candidate’s choosing, not to the U.S Treasury.
But the intended effect is exactly the same.
Brown called the agreement “a great victory for the people of Massachusetts,” but the move to limit, if not eliminate, the impact outside groups can have on the campaign appears to be a way for Brown to take away an advantage from Warren, who has been the beneficiary of more Super PAC-bought advertising, so far. According to the Globe, groups backing Warren have outspent those backing Brown 3-to-1.
Warren, who is probably best known as the architect of the new U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, called the agreement “historic,” supporting it even though it would apparently work against groups supporting her candidacy.
“oth campaigns will need to remain vigilant to ensure that outside groups do not try to circumvent what is an historic agreement,” Warren told the Globe in a statement. “This can give Massachusetts voters a clear choice come Election Day.”
The Berman v. Sherman race presents a remarkably parallel situation. Berman, who is reportedly being supported by three separate Super PACs, has said that he supports a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the groups.
But that was all Berman said at the debate in Woodland Hills earlier this month, and Sherman made frequent reference to his Super PAC pledge as a way to attack his opponent.
In an interview, Berman’s campaign manager, Gene Smith, told me that Berman doesn’t have any intention of signing Sherman’s pledge. Coordination between candidates and Super PACs is explicitly prohibited, she said, so the pledge could actually end up harming the candidate’s own efforts to get out his message.
“We have absolutely no information about who these PACs are, what their plans are, what they’re going to do,” Smith said on Friday, January 20. “ So to commit resources that we have raised and for which we have a plan and a strategy against resources that we have no clue about and no control over is silly.”
Sherman, meanwhile, would appear to have much to gain from his pledge because as of now, nobody knows of any outside groups supporting his candidacy.
Phil Trounstine, writing on the Callbuzz blog, presented Sherman’s strategic thinking this way:
Hoping to turn Berman’s strength into a weakness, Sherman, with obvious guidance from campaign pro Parke Skelton, is trying to make an issue of the evil super PACS by challenging Berman to refund whatever money they spend on his behalf to the U.S. Treasury. (Good luck with that, Brad.)
It’s clear that, for politicians like Warren and Berman who oppose the existence of Super PACs—even though they are being supported by Super PACs—the outside money groups present a particular conundrum.
Which leaves us with two questions:
1. Could the agreement between Brown and Warren—assuming it lasts—strengthen Sherman’s hand in pushing for an anti-Super PAC pledge?
2. Could a pledge like this work at the national level? Both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have said that they oppose the existence of Super PACs (although both reportedly supported the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that gave rise to the groups). It seems unlikely that either Romney or Gingrich would propose such a pledge—but what about President Obama? He is reportedly no fan of Priorities USA Action, an outside group that is supporting his reelection effort. But Democrats involved in his campaign effort see Super PACs, which can accept unlimited individual and corporate contributions, as a necessary evil.
“We can’t unilaterally disarm,” former South Carolina Democratic Chairman and Obama national finance committee member Dick Harpootlian told Politico.
But what about bilateral disarmament? Could Obama propose a pledge akin to the one proposed by Sherman and enacted by Brown and Warren?