WASHINGTON – President Clinton’s request for the FCC to enact free airtime regulations, made during his State of the Union address Tuesday night, hadn’t even made its way over to the agency’s headquarters before chairman Bill Kennard announced he was granting Clinton’s wish.
Kennard revealed that agency staffers have been hard at work on the free airtime proposal for more than a month, although he refused to disclose any details about the proposed rule. Clinton called on the Federal Communications Commission to write regulations that would give political candidates free or discounted airtime.
Although most of the previous free airtime proposals had focused on federal candidates, Kennard told reporters Wednesday that the proposal would also cover candidates for state office as well.
Unlike former agency chairman Reed Hundt, Kennard apparently has the support for his proposal. Both commissioners Gloria Tristani and Susan Ness said they would support a free airtime proposal. The support of his fellow Democrats gives Kennard the three-vote majority he needs for final approval. Kennard said he hopes to have the new rules in place by the next presidential election in 2000.
But broadcasters insisted Wednesday that Kennard lacks jurisdiction. “The FCC has no authority to mandate free airtime for political candidates,” said National Assn. of Broadcasters prexy Eddie Fritts. “This is solely and completely within the purview of Congress.”
At least two powerful members of Congress oppose the proposal. Both House telecommunications subcommittee chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and Senate commerce committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) say they oppose the FCC’s plan. McCain said Wednesday it’s up to Congress to decide what the free airtime provisions should be.