Free ads for pols?

Chances appear slim for planned McCain-Feingold TV bill

A new bill on free airtime for political candidates set to be introduced next week by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) is long on bark but short on bite.

Although the bill hasn't yet been unveiled, key House lawmakers have already stated their opposition. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee, last week told the National Association of Broadcasters' board of directors that he would strongly oppose it (see story, page 36). House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) also is against it.

"Senator McCain is a patriot and a great American, but, if his bill hits the House, we'll be playing 'Taps' for it," said Ken Johnson, spokesman for Tauzin.

Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, hasn't taken a position on it but historically has not been a huge fan of free airtime, his spokesman said.

The bill tries an aggressive tack to force radio and TV broadcasters to help lower the cost of campaigns.

First, it would require broadcasters to provide two hours of candidate-centered programming each week in the month leading up to elections, although how long that requirement would exist prior to elections could change in the final bill, says Paul Taylor, executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns.

Second, McCain's bill would levy a spectrum-usage fee on broadcasters, about 1% of their gross revenues. The money would be deposited in a "broadcast bank" and doled out to the political parties. The parties then would give vouchers to candidates to buy advertising time on TV and radio stations at market rates.

McCain's move comes as no surprise to broadcasters. He promised such a bill early last year, but then overall campaign-finance reform legislation started moving. He pulled back on the controversial broadcasting piece to keep from endangering the larger bill, which eventually passed.

Broadcasters aren't happy that McCain is back on the campaign-finance–reform trail and plan to fight hard against the new bill. History shows that broadcasters' chances of defeating the bill are good, particularly given their strong support in the House of Representatives. Last summer, the NAB defeated a proposal by Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) that would have required them to sell airtime to politicians at greatly reduced prices.