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Air Time in the Bank

By Paul Taylor
Wednesday, April 2 1997; Page A17


In the past decade, Congress has heard 6,742 pages of testimony on campaign finance reform, delivered 3,361 floor speeches and taken 113 votes – all for naught. Meanwhile, the system sinks deeper toward collapse, and the public drifts deeper into cynicism.

The moment cries out for a new approach that would break the unholy alliance between those trying to do too much and those determined to do nothing. Happily, one is available. It would not solve every problem associated with campaign finance, but it would ease most of them – and it's within political reach and constitutional bounds.

The new idea is to create a national political broadcast time bank. It would cut sharply the cost of campaigns and make politics more competitive and candidates more accountable. It would serve as an antidote to the hit-and-run campaigning of outside groups, as well as to the unfair advantages of self-financed millionaire candidates and the civic corrosion of political attack ads.

Here's how it would work. At the beginning of each election campaign, every TV and radio station in the country would contribute an hour or two of prime spot advertising time to a broadcast bank administered by the Federal Election Commission. The bank would distribute vouchers for this time in two ways. Half would go to all general election congressional candidates who demonstrated a broad base of support from small donations. The other half would go to the major (and any qualifying minor) political parties, which would be free to distribute the vouchers to their national, state or local general election candidates.

This distribution system would be flexible enough to allow more of the time to be used in the most competitive races (that's good for challengers). And it would enable candidates who don't need or want free time to trade their vouchers in to their party for other forms of campaign support.

The market value of the time distributed by this bank should be pegged at $500 million per two-year election cycle – the industry's rough estimate of what it received from political advertisers in 1995-1996. Sound like a lot? It's about one-half of one percent of the gross ad revenues the broadcast industry took in during that period.

Even at this modest level, the broadcasters would no doubt squeal: Why should we be singled out to bear the cost of cleaning up politics?

Because broadcasters profit uniquely from politics – and they do so with a public resource. In almost every other democracy in the world, broadcasters are required to make political air time available for free. Here they sell it. This is the right moment to lean on the industry for some relief. Broadcasters are about to receive one of the great government giveaways in recent memory – six new megahertz on the nation's airwaves to facilitate their transition to digital television technology. If it had been sold at auction – the way the government allocates spectrum space to other commercial users – it would have raised an estimated $30 billion to $70 billion for the federal Treasury.

Last year a few lonely voices in Congress – including Republican Sens. Bob Dole and John McCain and Democratic Rep. Barney Frank – tried to make the broadcasters pay. Their proposal died in the House on a 408-16 vote. As Speaker Newt Gingrich commented, "Nobody wants to take on the broadcasters."

This year, as these new digital television licenses are about to be awarded, maverick broadcast mogul Barry Diller has called on the industry to give a billion dollars worth of free time per election to candidates, and President Clinton and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt have called for new public interest obligations to be imposed on the industry.

Candidates who are given broadcast bank time could be required to use it in lengths of not less than a minute, and to appear on screen for their entire presentations. This would move campaigns away from attack advertising, in which the candidate paying for the ad never appears. The goal is not to dull the thrust-and-parry of politics but to foster a campaign discourse that favors words over images and substance over sound bites.

Five hundred million dollars of this sort of discourse might start to bring citizens back to politics. It would also remove the single greatest magnet for the money chase. With a time bank in place, parties easily could be made to give up so-called "soft money" – the $250 million they raised in oversized chunks in 1995-96 from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals.

Soft money is at the center of all the campaign scandal stories of 1996. The Supreme Court would not raise an eyebrow if it were outlawed. It has consistently ruled that while political spending cannot be limited, political contributions can be, especially contributions large enough to raise the odor of corruption.

The start of a solution is out there for the having – get free time into the system and soft money out.

The writer, a former political reporter for The Post, is director of the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition.


© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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