Warren and Brown Form Truce on Super-PAC Spending

For nearly two weeks, both Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Senator Scott Brown have called for limitations on third-party spending in the upcoming Massachusetts Senate election. But though the two camps will sit down Friday to discuss the proposition, Harvard professors have called this temporary cease-fire a political stunt that will not have much influence on the race.

“This is for public consumption only,” said Harvard Kennedy School lecturer David C. King. “The Warren and Brown campaigns both understand that the first amendment allows this kind of speech by the Super PACs, so in trying to halt their influence, this is really about political posturing on an issue over which they have no control.”

The meeting comes after much back and forth on the issue of third-party advertisements as “super-PAC”-sponsored attack ads come under close scrutiny for their role in the presidential primaries.

In a series of letters and media statements, each campaign has offered increasingly specific proposals that would restrict the influence of organizations not affiliated with either campaign.

In a letter this week, Brown proposed a penalty that would fine a third-party group 50 percent of an advertisement’s cost each time it ran an ad in support of or attacking a specific campaign. The money, Brown wrote, could be given to a charity of the opposing campaign’s choosing.

“We want an agreement that actually means something,” Warren spokesperson Alethea Harvey wrote in an email. “We can’t force Super PACs to do anything, but our campaigns can agree on how we can respond if they don’t comply. We’re a lot stronger together than we are separately on this.”

Several professors pointed out that the significant amount of cash raised already by both campaigns has enabled them to take this political stance.

“They are both going to have so much money that the added value of having those extra resources values spent on their behalf is not much,” IOP Director Trey Grayson’94 said.

But professors pointed out the candidates have little real clout in light of recent changes in third-party finance law. In the 2010 Citizens United case, the Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot impose limits on the political spending of independent groups. Citizens United also stipulated that candidates may not have any affiliation with super-PACs.

Even if the two campaigns settle on an agreement, the candidates would have no ability to enforce it, professors said.

“The whole point of Super PACs [is] on premise that the financial entity is independent of the campaigns. So they can put out nice lines about how they would like to have out of, but they have no control over it by definition,” said Kennedy School professor Benjamin W. Heineman Jr. ’65.

For all the time and attention being given to the proposal, even if it is just political posturing, the effort may not even be very important to voters, Grayson said.

“I’m not convinced that the public cares too much about this,” he added. “The economy is what a lot of voters care about. These sort of clean election issues are things that political junkies and editorial boards care about but average voters don’t.”