March 29, 2012; Source: New York Times

Andrew Rosenthal reports that the “super PAC pact” reached by Massachusetts senatorial candidates Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren is working. As the NPQ Newswire previously reported, Sen. Brown and challenger Warren signed a “People’s Pledge” to convince the “independent” third party organizations supporting their candidacies to cease and desist. With the incentive of a penalty for violations, requiring the candidate to pay half the cost of independent advertising to a charity if some otherwise independent entity runs an ad in his or her favor, Brown and Warren have something going. The Washington Post reports that independent advertising in the race has nearly disappeared. On two occasions, Brown has actually paid or agreed to pay the penalty because of supportive advertising funded by the American Petroleum Institute and by an “autism charity.” In an unusual gesture of reasonableness, Brown is paying the API penalty even though his campaign says that the API ads did not constitute independent spending on his behalf, since the API ran the same ad in seven states. 

Here is the problem: Voluntary self-regulation never really works across the board—because it’s voluntary. While Brown and Warren have reached a form of political spending comity, an effort to reach a similar deal in the senatorial race in Montana failed. Although Rosenthal is supportive of what Warren and Brown have achieved so far in Massachusetts, and although he knows that real campaign finance reform is a long way off, he is a realist about the limits of the Massachusetts success: “Such voluntary actions can’t replace effective government regulation—I don’t want a system where some politicians choose to hold themselves to high ethical standards; I want a system where they must hold themselves to high ethical standards.”

Although the news coverage on the People’s Pledge has stressed super PACs, we presume it also covers the direct spending of 501(c)(4)s as well as their capital infusions into PACs. We wonder whether in Massachusetts, 501(c)(4)s that have been prevented from independent advertising pro or con Warren or Brown have reprogrammed their funds for other political activities or, hope against hope, that they have used the freed up moneys for the main purpose in their 501(c) tax classification: social welfare. –Rick Cohen