The best antidote to the "distortion without accountability" of negative television advertising by independent political groups is to guarantee their targets free response time on television, according to a report released yesterday by the Democracy Project, a year-old liberal think tank.
The report also said that the way to reduce the impact of special-interest money on congressional campaigns is not to legislate new ceilings on political action committee contributions, as most current reform proposals suggest, but to provide a floor of guaranteed television time for all candidates who pass certain threshold tests.
The study, "Independent Expenditures in Congressional Campaigns: The Electronic Solution," written by Andrew Buchsbaum, recommends:
That the Fairness Doctrine, or equal-time rule, be expanded to allow candidates attacked by independent groups, such as the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), free air time to reply.
Under current law, candidates are exempted from Federal Communication Commission rules guaranteeing free response time to targets of broadcast attacks.
That qualified House candidates receive two hours of free broadcast time (one hour of short commercial spots and one hour of longer programming time) in the six weeks before a general election. If a candidate were running in a highly populated area with many contests in one media market, he could instead receive a postage grant to conduct a mailing to every voter in the district. Senate candidates would receive either 3.5 hours of broadcast time or a postage grant. The cost of the program would be borne by taxpayers and television stations.
Congress enacted an optional public financing system for presidential candidates in 1974, but it has resisted proposals to apply the same concept to congressional races.
Democracy Project President Mark Green said the proposal does not seem feasible right now. "We need an accumulation of public concern over the correlation between special-interest money and votes, and we need a Democratic administration," he said.