Determined to keep up momentum for the campaign finance movement, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., unveiled a new proposal Wednesday to give airtime vouchers to candidates and parties funded by a new fee on broadcasters.
Billed as legislation that would offer candidates “free airtime” to reduce the cost of advertising and increase the face-time candidates get on the expensive airwaves, the legislation is a follow-up to the senators’ successful passage of a soft-money ban and other campaign finance restrictions earlier this year.
“It would significantly improve the quality of elections,” said Feingold, surrounded by supporters and House counterparts who say they are interested in leveling the playing field for candidates and de-emphasizing the importance of money in campaigns.
“My personal preference is for complete public financing of political campaigns. But I think this is a good step in the right direction,” Feingold added.
The legislation, announced in a press conference sponsored by the New America Foundation and backed by a coalition of 50 groups called the Free Air Time Coalition, would give airtime vouchers to federal candidates who qualify by raising a threshold level of individual donations.
It would also offer national parties “block grants” of vouchers in each two-year election cycle to help pay for advertising for candidates who need the money most. The proposal would in turn eliminate an existing law that requires broadcasters to offer lower advertising rates to political candidates.
Broadcasters would also be required to set aside at least two hours a week – on or immediately around prime time in the six weeks before an election – to some sort of campaign coverage.
“Most of the time, it is very difficult for an unknown challenger to get on the playing field,” said McCain, who insisted this would give more candidates the chance to participate in the advertising arena, which generated $1 billion in revenues during the 2000 presidential campaign. “What we’re trying to do is what most Americans want to do – have a chance to see their candidates and their opponents."
“These steps would provide citizens with more choice, more information and more power,” write American Enterprise Institute fellow Norman Ornstein and New America Foundation scholar Paul Taylor, both of whom helped to craft the legislation, which is expected to be formally introduced later this year.
The proposal drew quick criticism from those who say it offers no incentive to incumbents and national parties to decrease the billions they pour into campaigns.
“I don’t quite understand how this strengthens democracy and elections,” voiced Adam Thierer, a Cato Institute analyst.
He called the proposal another step down the path of “subsidized soapboxes” that would allow the already wealthy Republican and Democratic parties to “double dip” into a stack of vouchers and continue fundraising business as usual.
“If this is what you call democracy, then you can have it,” he charged. “Campaigns will still be as expensive. The quality of the advertising will still be as lame.”
The proposed fee would be about 1 percent of broadcasters' total gross income, and would hardly make a dent in their profits, said McCain. It would be a “return on the public investment” broadcasters enjoy through countless subsidies and tax breaks, he said.
But these broadcast license holders only represent the broadcasters of the public spectrum that offer free TV service and does not include cable or satellite broadcasting which 90 percent of the Americas use today. Some question whether it is fair to force the license holders to shoulder the burden of supply free airtime to politics, and if it is even constitutional.
“It’s a very delicate constitutional balance, and one that I think this proposal would tip,” said Robert Corn-Revere, a Washington-based attorney. “None of us really knows what a court would do with this proposal.”
But free airtime supporters, which include the likes of broadcast legend Walter Cronkite, aren’t deterred by constitutional threats. The ban on soft money passed by Congress and signed by President Bush this year is already in court because of constitutional questions regarding its restrictions on so-called issue ads.
The National Association of Broadcasters did not return calls for comment, but forwarded materials suggesting it will fight the free airtime proposal.