March 17, 1998
Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook on Free TV
Free TV is Round 3 of our fight this Congress for campaign finance reform. Round 1 was the McCain-Feingold reform bill that was stopped by a filibuster last October. Round 2 was last month’s proposal to ban the corrupting influence of soft money that was also stopped by a filibuster. Now we have a chance to score a win for the voters over free TV.
When it comes to reforming our corrupt campaign finance system, this is truly a “do-nothing” Congress. After today’s Appropriations Committee action it’s still a do-nothing Congress. But at least here doing nothing means the Federal Communications Commission can do something.
Although we cannot be sure there will not be a floor fight on this appropriations bill or that a rider won’t be attached on other legislation, for the time being it appears the FCC can continue its process toward requiring broadcasters to provide free and discounted broadcast time for political candidates. It’s a modest, but meaningful, first step against the current incumbent protection system. It strikes a blow against a system loaded with campaign cash from corporate interests.
During recent filibusters Republican leaders argued that any limits on soft money and phony issue ad contributions would violate freedom of speech. But free TV promotes free speech, and promotes informed debate by allowing all candidates access to the public airwaves. The Founding Fathers did not intend free speech only for big spenders.
This fight over free TV is itself one of the best arguments for ending the corporate domination of our electoral system. The National Association of Broadcasters and its individual members are one of the most powerful special interests in American politics. With more than $9.5 million in political contributions over the past decade, most of it in big chunks of soft money to political parties, the broadcasters can turn up their volume to drown out the average citizens who want free TV.
Not only have the broadcasters used their dollars to try to stop fair and modest campaign reforms, just two years ago they came to Capitol Hill and obtained up to $70 billion in free digital TV licenses without any specific commitments to the public interest. As Bob Dole said, this was a “fleecing of the taxpayers”.
Today’s action by the Appropriations Committee may allow taxpayers to get a little something back through an FCC rule on free TV. Less costly campaigns. Greater access to voters by challengers. More substantive communication with the public and less mud may all result from today’s small victory.
And perhaps, most important, this victory brings us a step closer to enacting more comprehensive campaign finance reform later this session.