Pols push free airtime

WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group led by Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced campaign finance reform legislation Tuesday that would require broadcasters to hand over free and discounted air time to federal political candidates.

The proposal rewards candidates who agree to voluntary spending limits with up to 30 minutes of free airtime each election cycle on the station or stations of their choice. In order to qualify for the free airtime, Senate candidates in California, for example, would have to agree to a spending limit of $8.25 million. The candidates would be allowed to spend $2.75 million in the primary and $5.5 million in the general election. The proposal was introduced jointly by McCain, and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).

Candidates who opt for the free time must also agree to spend no more than $250,000 of their own money on their election effort. In contrast, former Rep. Michael Huffington spent $28 million of his own money in a failed bid to defeat Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Huffington raised $29.9 million in his election effort.

The House version of the legislation, introduced by Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.), would limit House candidates to spending limits ranging between $600,000 and $1.2 million. The limit will depend on the market size and advertising costs in a candidate’s district.

Soft money limited

Of particular interest to big Hollywood contributors such as former MCA chief Lew Wasserman and helmer Steven Spielberg, the proposals would ban soft money contributions to political parties. Wasserman and Spielberg are among the handful of Hollywood denizens who have given in excess of $100,000 to the Democratic Party campaign coffers in the last election cycle. Under the McCain-Feingold proposal, individual contributions would be capped at $2,000.

The National Assn. of Broadcasters (NAB), which opposes the legislation, noted that federal candidates already are entitled to a discount for their political commercials. Under current law, candidates are entitled to the so-called lowest unit rate. The lowest unit rate is equivalent to the discount offered by a station to its favored customers such as local department stores and car dealerships. The McCain-Feingold proposal would give candidates an additional 50% discount on the lowest unit rate charge.

NAB fights back

Last week, the NAB took out an advertisement in Roll Call, a newspaper circulated on Capitol Hill, claiming that television advertising accounts for less than half of the expenditures of the average House campaign.

Although campaign reform failed in the last Congress, recent scandals involving foreign contributions to the Clinton-Gore campaign and the rising costs of campaigns generally may give the issue momentum this time around. Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) has called for Congress to pass campaign finance reform during the next 100 days. Daschle introduced a campaign reform bill of his own Tuesday that was similar to the proposal by McCain and Feingold.

McCain and Feingold are urging supporters to line up behind their bill because, they argue, it is designed as a nonpartisan, realistic effort at reform. Daschle’s bill is being labeled as the Democratic proposal.

Partisan jab

While endorsing the McCain-Feingold proposal Tuesday, President Clinton could not resist a little partisan rhetoric. “On the other side, our friends may not have any interest in campaign finance reform. Why should they? They raise more money. They raise more foreign money, they raise more money in big contributions, and we take all the heat,” said Clinton in a speech to the Democratic National Committee.

In the meantime broadcasters are taking comfort in the way the debate appears to be headed. “The one fail-safe for broadcasters is that Republicans and Democrats can never agree on reform,” said Tribune Broadcasting’s Washington rep, Shaun Sheehan.

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