McCain gets bill rolling on free political airtime

Jun 10, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., will team with Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., to introduce a controversial free airtime bill next week and will ask Senate Commerce Chairman Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., to back it, Sen. McCain told Electronic Media.
Sen. Feingold is best known for partnering with Sen. McCain on campaign finance reform legislation, which passed this year after a lengthy and fierce legislative battle.
The political ad bill is already facing mounting opposition: Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., is expected to oppose it, and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., told EM that he and other colleagues will fight it.
Many lawmakers dislike free airtime because it would provide greater exposure for their challengers. Some worry that the approach violates the First Amendment rights of broadcasters and amounts to government meddling.
In an interview last week, Sen. McCain said he would push free airtime with the same tenacity that led to his campaign reform victory.“It’ll be one of those things that’ll be a long fight,” he said.
But he acknowledged that resistance from the National Association of Broadcasters will be strong and that supporters, especially at the outset, will be few.
In another interview, Sen. Hollings said he had no opinion on the McCain bill because he hadn’t seen it. But when asked about a key component-a spectrum tax on TV and radio stations to finance the free time-he didn’t back the idea.
Sen. McCain’s legislation envisions a voucher system financed by a spectrum tax on broadcasters, but at deadline details were not final.
The watchdog Alliance for Better Campaigns, which is helping Sen. McCain shape the measure, recommends the following approach: Each TV and radio station would pay a spectrum tax, amounting to one-half of 1 percent of its gross annual revenues.
The money, totaling about $640 million every two years, would be doled out to congressional candidates and political parties in the form of vouchers to be used for buying broadcast ad time.
Political parties could give some of their vouchers to presidential, state and gubernatorial candidates.
Stations would sell political ad time at market rates, dropping the current system of selling the time at reduced charges called lowest unit rates.
The government would reimburse stations for each voucher.
The face value of a candidate’s vouchers would be tied to his fund-raising of small-dollar donations, creating an incentive to seek modest contributions from average citizens.
Candidates would be able to purchase TV or radio ads with their own money in addition to any free spots, leading some to worry that wealthy candidates might blanket a market with free and purchased ads.
On a related note, Post-Newsweek said it will continue a long tradition of offering free time to politicians this year. The company’s TV stations will arrange debates for gubernatorial and Senate candidates in their markets, conduct brief interviews with federal and state candidates and devote five minutes a night to campaign coverage during newscasts.