Subscribe for 17¢ / day

The U.S. House of Representatives will soon take up debate on campaign finance reform. The Senate has already passed its version of CFR in the form of the McCain-Feingold bill.

House Bill HR 2356, the Shays-Meehan bill, contains language that is very similar to the Torricelli Amendment in the McCain-Feingold bill. That provision, while it purports to address skyrocketing campaign costs, political ad clutter and negative advertising, will only exacerbate the currently perceived problems.

The Torricelli amendment and the Shays-Meehan bill will force television stations to fundamentally change they way they conduct their local business. It will provide a privileged and premium class of speech for federal candidates while increasing the cost of advertising to local businesses and, severely limiting the time available to state and local candidates for office.

Under current law the campaign “window” is 45 days prior to a primary election and 60 days prior to a general election. Candidates are entitled to buy time for what is called the “lowest unit charge.” The LUC is the lowest rate charged to the best client during the window for a comparable time. Under the McCain-Feingold bill the window for rate comparison will increase to a full 365 days and under the Shays-Meehan bill it would increase to 180 days. Additionally, candidates would pay the lowest rate charged to any advertiser during any time of the day.

Party privilegeFurther, it extends this same privilege to political parties, not just candidates.

Proponents of the McCain-Feingold bill and the Shays-Meehan bill claim that this legislation will lower the costs of campaigns and provide for greater political discourse. There is no evidence to suggest that either of these lofty goals will be achieved by either piece of legislation. Because there is no limit on how much money a candidate can raise or spend, it only stands to reason that lowering the cost of broadcast advertising will simply allow them to buy more time.

The more time federal candidates buy, and stations are required by law to sell time to federal candidates, the less time will be available for state and local candidates or even the local grocer or car dealer. By eliminating the 45- and 60-day windows, this legislation removes another provision of the original campaign finance law, the limitation on the length of the campaign. It will encourage year-around campaigns.

Both pieces of legislation are based on the faulty presumption that the cost of television advertising is the primary reason that campaign costs have risen. This is simply not true. Dwight Morris, president of the Campaign Study Group, an independent research firm that analyzes the actual campaign spending reports submitted to the Federal Election Commission, testified at a congressional hearing that, the percentage of campaign expenditures on television has remained remarkably consistent for more than a decade at approximately 40 percent of the total expenses. Both incumbents and challengers spent significantly more on office overhead than on they did on commercials.

Proponents of these measures will argue that the “public owns the airwaves.” Over and over again this mantra is chanted by those seeking to provide themselves a gift available to no other group. There is no basis for this statement in the Radio Act of 1927 or the Communications Act of 1934, the primary legislation governing the broadcast industry. That legislation was designed primarily as a tool to manage the electromagnetic spectrum, not to control it.

‘Public interest’ is subjectiveThat legislation does state that broadcasters must operate in the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” They do that by providing news, weather, emergency information, political debates and, yes, entertainment. It is a long stretch to conclude that the “public interest” mandate must also provide a small, elite group of federal candidates such a windfall. This legislation is unconstitutional because it provides more favorable treatment for one type of speech while imposing restrictions on another very limited class of speakers, the television stations.

Federal candidates already receive, on average, a 30 percent discount on the cost of the airtime they purchase for their campaigns. Broadcasters are not opposed to campaign finance reform, but we are opposed to providing even greater discounts to those candidates.

Without the hundreds of thousands of dollars that radio stations invest in putting a signal over the air, and the millions of dollars that a television station must invest in order to provide free, over-the-air broadcasting, the airwaves are just that, air.

Gregory MacDonald of Bonner is executive director Montana Broadcasters Association, which has a membership of 23 TV stations and 122 radio stations.