Reform takes form

Senate poised to pass campaign-finance bill with two troubling provisions

The Senate is on the verge of approving a campaign-finance-reform bill with at least two amendments that will be hard for broadcasters to stomach, should the bill survive the House and the conference process with those provisions intact.

The House has passed campaign-finance reform before. But broadcasters tend to win their battles in the House because almost every member has at least one TV station in his or her district.

Two weeks ago, Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) introduced and the Senate approved the provision the most worries broadcasters. It would require TV stations, cable operators and satellite TV carriers to always offer politicians their lowest ad rate. And the ads could not be preempted if someone else wanted to pay more for the spot.

"The Torricelli Amendment is patently unconstitutional," NAB President Eddie Fritts wrote all senators. "Government regulation of speech, including speech on broadcast stations, must be both the least restrictive means available and must directly advance a governmental interest."

The other amendment adopted last week, introduced by Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and John Breaux (D-La.), requires broadcasters to disclose publicly which groups bought issue ads and how much they paid for them.

"The intent of the provision is to provide more information on the identity of the persons buying time-there is no need for further disclosures regarding rates," Fritts wrote. "Another unintended consequence of this amendment would force broadcasters to be the policemen of campaign reform."

One amendment voted down would have required broadcasters to give time to candidates to respond to issue groups' attack ads. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), point man on reform, though for free time was concerned that the amendment raised constitutional questions and could endanger the bill's passage. An amendment that passed forbids independent groups to air attack ads a month before a primary and two months before a general election.

The Senate is scheduled to vote today on the package, which McCain and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) have pushed for years. It has been defeated by Republican opponents in the past, but things are different this year. The Senate is split 50-50, making it harder for Republicans to block bills, and it's clear the American people think campaign-finance reform is worth doing.

The bill seemed clear for passage last Thursday, after the Senate defeated 57-43 an amendment that would have required the courts to strike down the entire bill if any one provision were declared unconstitutional.