Air Time for Candidates

Dear Barbara,

       Let’s start with what (I hope) we can agree on. The campaign-finance system needs significant overhaul. The political-money chase has intensified as the costs of communicating with the public have increased; candidates and lawmakers alike spend inordinate amounts of precious time raising money or thinking about raising money; the “barriers to entry” have been raised so high that many qualified or desirable candidates have opted not to run because it is so difficult to get started; fewer contests for Congress have been competitive as a consequence; real dialogue with give and take has diminished in campaigns, both because of the inability of many candidates to raise the resources necessary to get their messages across and because advertising by candidates and outside groups has become increasingly personal and harshly negative.
       Chances are that if we agree on the existence of these problems, we also agree on many possible reforms that would ameliorate them. But there are areas of possible reform where we disagree–notably, on the issue of providing broadcast time to candidates and parties as a way of satisfying the demand for resources to communicate with voters, providing opportunities for challengers, invigorating political parties, and improving (at least slightly) the dialogue in campaigns.
       We likely disagree in two areas involving broadcast time–for presidential candidates, as Paul Taylor of the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition proposed last year, and for parties and House and Senate candidates via a broadcast time bank, as I and a group of political scholars (including Paul) have proposed to the current Congress.
       I would like to focus our dialogue on the most immediate questions, since campaign-finance reform will probably be debated in the Senate in September. That means we should discuss the concept of providing broadcast time to parties and congressional candidates as a part of an overall campaign-finance-reform plan. At the same time, we ought to avoid the typical “straw men” that are sometimes raised in debates on this issue. First, I do not believe that it is feasible or desirable to provide free time to every candidate for Congress–not every district uses (or should use) television to communicate, and it would be a nightmare to allocate time to all the candidates served by broadcasters in places like the New York metropolitan area. Second, the issue is not a constitutional one of the free speech of broadcasters or the “taking” of their property rights. There can be (and in coming months, will be) a vigorous debate about what are or should be the public-interest obligations of broadcasters. But the question of whether broadcast time for candidates and/or parties is a critical part of reform is separate from the question of who should pay for it or provide it. For example, one part of the proposal I and my colleagues have made is to repeal the “lowest unit rate” discount that broadcasters have to provide to candidates (which they claim costs them 30 percent of the revenues they would otherwise get) and accept in its stead the provision of one minute of free time for every two minutes of paid time–a proposal for an exchange of elements of value originally made to Congress by the National Association of Broadcasters.
       So let me offer a few initial words on the big issue. It costs a lot to communicate in this complex and cacophonous society. The costs of communicating have risen sharply, led overwhelmingly by the costs of television advertising, and so have the difficulties in raising enough money to do so. With demand up and supply down, the consequences have been predictable–many candidates have been unable to get enough resources, and for others, subterranean, troubling, and even corrupt ways of meeting the demand have mushroomed.
       What to do? The single best course of action is to meet the legitimate demand for resources to communicate by providing additional access to them. And the best way to do that is to accumulate broadcast time in some fashion, and distribute it to candidates and parties. My strong preference is to give some time to political parties to allocate as they wish among their candidates (parties, among other things, have an institutional interest in challengers). I would also provide time to candidates who raise significant sums from small individual donors–as a matching incentive to broaden the base of political participation. I would attach one condition to the provision of broadcast time: that the ads feature the candidates themselves, not anonymous narrators, both to increase accountability and to reduce the corrosively negative nature of the discourse. At maximum, the cost of this initiative would be about $400 million in an election cycle, or about one-half of 1 percent of the advertising revenues of broadcasters.
       No reform will create a perfect campaign system. But the broadcast bank could do more to dampen the money chase, improve competition, and enhance campaign discourse than any other single change.