The other shoe of campaign finance reformis dropping.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) isagain taking the lead by sponsoring legislationrequiring radio and television broadcasters toprovide free airtime to political candidates infurtherance of their campaigns.
In fact, suchairtime would not be free; we would pay a highprice in one of our most precious currencies,freedom of the press.Proponents of campaign finance reformhave long sought to mandate some form of freeairtime for candidates.
Five years ago PresidentClinton established the President’s AdvisoryCommittee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters (popularlyknown as the Gore Commission) to deal in par-ticular with the burgeoning costs of televisionadvertising time for political candidates.
Thepresident expected this body to recommend,and the Federal Communi-cations Commis-sion then to implement, a program for govern-ment-mandated free television airtime for can-didates for political office.
The GoreCommission, a “Noah’s Ark” of representativesof special interests,
was not able to agree on anymandate, and some of its members had to set-tle for a statement urging broadcasters to do abetter job of covering political campaigns.
Yet the initiative behind the GoreCommission lives on. In June 2002 McCainpublicly thanked political scientist NormanOrnstein, the cochair of the Gore Commission,and journalist Paul Taylor, head of the Alliancefor Better Campaigns, for developing the core of the senator’s current proposal.
The followingOctober McCain introduced S. 3124, thePolitical Campaign Broadcast Activity Improve-ments Act, to implement the proposal. He nodoubt will reintroduce such legislation in the108th Congress where he chairs the SenateCommittee on Commerce, Science andTransportation to which S. 3124 was referred.
Senator McCain’s bill has three main com-ponents. First, it explicitly regulates programcontent by requiring broadcasters to devote atleast two hours per week in the period just priorto federal elections to “candidate-centered” or“issue-centered” programming, defined toexclude paid political advertising. At least oneof those hours must be in an expanded primetime, and none can be “night owl” broadcastsbetween midnight and 6:00
Second, theact establishes a complicated voucher program,in the aggregate initial amount of $750 millionfor each two-year election cycle, under whichfederal candidates and national committees of qualifying political parties (on behalf of federal,state, or local candidates) would be givenvouchers to purchase broadcast time for politi-cal ads.
Broadcasters would have to acceptthose vouchers as payment; they could thenredeem them at face value. Commercial broad-casters would have to finance the voucher sys-tem through an annually assessed “spectrumuse fee” of between one-half and 1 percent of astation’s gross revenues.
Finally, the proposedlegislation would tighten the requirements of the current 47 U.S.C. § 315(b) to widen the cir-cumstances under which broadcasters mustcharge political candidates only the lowest unitrate for advertising time.
Overall, McCain’s bill proposes to shiftmuch of the cost of political campaigning,especially on television, from candidates andtheir supporters to broadcasters simplybecause the latter own and control an effec-tive medium of mass communication. Thedetails could vary and are not as important asthe principles at stake. Put simply, requiringbroadcasters to carry campaign-related con-tent and finance content- and speaker-specif-ic airtime cannot survive modern FirstAmendment scrutiny. Such a scheme alsowell may constitute a “taking” requiring justcompensation under the Fifth Amendment.
Broadcasters are not necessarily doing agood job of covering political campaigns, andtheir shortcomings attract appropriate criti-cism. Paul Taylor and the Alliance for BetterCampaigns contribute positively to public dis-course by cataloguing the deficiencies of
Requiring broad-casters to carrycampaign-relatedcontent andfinance content-and speaker-specific airtimecannot survivemodern FirstAmendmentscrutiny.