Congressional Reform Briefings                                                     March 16, 1998

- Help needed now to defeat a Senate Appropriations Committee amendment which would prohibit the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from providing free air time to congressional candidates. Vote expected on Tuesday, March 17.


On Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to vote on an amendment to strip the FCC of authority to provide free or reduced cost broadcast time to congressional candidates. This amendment would likely defeat the most promising effort to win campaign finance reform in the near future.

Our federal campaign finance system is thoroughly corrupt. Consequently, Congress is packed with corrupt, cowardly minions of corporate and wealthy elites. The dismal quality of Washington politicians will only improve when we replace the current campaign finance system with one which predisposes for the election of honest and honorable people.

The outlook for passage of campaign finance legislation in Congress this year is bleak. However, the FCC has the authority, under the Communications Act of 1934, to promulgate rules providing free or reduced cost air time to congressional candidates. Although this would not solve all campaign finance problems, it could boost competition in congressional elections, and weaken the stranglehold that corporate and wealthy special interests have over Congress.

FCC Chairman Bill Kennard believes that he has enough votes on the FCC to require broadcasters to provide free air time. His effort to initiate an FCC rule-making on this matter is now in jeopardy, because of strong opposition from the powerful National Association of Broadcasters.

This is a very important vote. Please contact senators on the Appropriations Committee and urge them to vote against any amendment to strip the FCC of its authority to provide free air time to congressional candidates. The congressional switchboard phone is (202) 224-3121. To obtain senators' e-mail addresses, try the Electronic Activist. Following is the roster of the Senate Committee on Appropriations:

Ted Stevens, Alaska, Chairman
Thad Cochran, Mississippi
Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania
Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico
Christopher S. Bond, Missouri
Slade Gorton, Washington
Mitch McConnell, Kentucky
Conrad Burns, Montana
Richard C. Shelby, Alabama
Judd Gregg, New Hampshire
Robert F. Bennett, Utah
Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Colorado
Larry Craig, Idaho
Lauch Faircloth, North Carolina
Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas

Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia
Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii
Ernest F. Hollings, South Carolina
Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont
Dale Bumpers, Arkansas
Tom Harkin, Iowa
Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland
Harry Reid, Nevada
Herb Kohl, Wisconsin
Patty Murray, Washington
Byron Dorgan, North Dakota
Barbara Boxer, California


The broadcast spectrum belongs to the public - to us. The Communications Act of 1934 requires that the FCC grant or renew licenses to use the airwaves based on whether "the public interest, convenience, and necessity will be served." Consequently, anyone wishing to obtain a radio or television license must meet the "public interest" standard.

FCC Chairman Kennard wants to initiate a rule-making to require, as a part of the "public interest" standard, that radio and television stations give free air time to incumbent Members of Congress and congressional candidates - as a condition of government licensure. Kennard is expected to schedule a vote to initiate an FCC rule-making on this matter at the FCC's next meeting, on April 2.

The National Association of Broadcasters -- a powerhouse Washington lobby -- strongly opposes any effort by the FCC to grant free air time to congressional candidates. They oppose because an FCC rule might cut into the magnificent profits gained by selling air time to congressional candidates. In 1996, broadcasters earned about $400 million in profits from political advertising.

Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Conrad Burns (R-MT) argue that the FCC does not have the authority to promulgate such a requirement. Their argument is flawed. The FCC has broad authority under the "public interest" standard to require that the airwaves be used for the public good. The highly respected non-partisan Congressional Research Service wrote last year that the FCC does have "discretionary authority" to require television and radio stations to provide free air time as a condition of their government-granted licenses.

This authority has withstood judicial review. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the part of the Communications Act allowing the federal government to create "a limited right to 'reasonable' access that pertains only to legally qualified federal candidates." Furthermore, the Court held that "there is nothing in the First Amendment which prevents the Government from requiring a licensee to share his frequency with others [because]... it is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount." (CBS v. FCC, 453 U.S. 367, 1981.)

This decision fits well with the views of James Madison, who drafted the First Amendment. "The right of electing the members of the Government constitutes...the essence of a free and responsible government. The value and efficacy of this right depends on the knowledge of the comparative merits and demerits of the candidates for public trust."

However, that right has been gravely undercut by the need to raise huge sums of money to run for Congress. Only persons who are wealthy -- or are able to raise funds from the wealthy - have a viable chance of winning election to Congress. Consequently, the congressional legislative process is heavily stacked in favor of corporate and wealthy special interests who provide the vast majority of campaign contributions, and against the majority of Americans who do not - or cannot afford to - contribute to congressional campaigns.

FCC Chairman Kennard's proposal to initiate an FCC rule-making is perhaps the best hope of winning some measure of campaign finance reform in the near future. No one knows what rule might emerge from the FCC rule-making process. But it is likely that whatever rule - even a weak one - would help provide underfunded congressional challengers with the air time they need to make their message heard.

On Tuesday, March 17, the Senate Committee on Appropriations is expected to take up an emergency appropriations bill that would, among other things, fund peacekeeping in Bosnia and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Senators on the Appropriations Committee are poised to offer an amendment to disallow the FCC to provide free or low cost broadcast time to congressional candidates. Please urge senators on the Appropriations Committee to oppose such an amendment.

Following is an excerpt from a New York Times editorial:

"...worried broadcasting industry lobbyists are trying to stop this promising effort and, not incidentally, preserve the hefty revenues stations now derive from selling time to candidates. Like the broadcasters, Congressional opponents pretend that this is purely a jurisdictional issue, and that a free-time rule would exceed the F.C.C.'s powers. Yet, as the Congressional Research Service concluded last year, the agency has broad authority to insure that broadcast licensees use the public airwaves to serve the public interest. If the 1996 fund-raising scandals taught us anything, it is that a system under which candidates mortgage themselves to wealthy interests in order to buy TV time does not serve the best interests of the Republic....Senator McCain, unfortunately, has sided with the broadcasters, even though earlier versions of his campaign finance reform bill contained a free-time provision that was dropped to improve the bill's prospects. The Senator argues that Congress is the right forum for this issue, not the F.C.C. He misses the point. This is an argument about how to make campaigns cheaper and cleaner, not about regulatory creep by the F.C.C. The broadcasting industry has already profited greatly from Congressional largess -- most recently the profitable digital spectrum, which it got free -- and the time has come to give something back." ("The Cleansing Power of Free TV," The New York Times, March 11, 1998.)

The Congressional Accountability Project is a congressional reform group affiliated with Ralph Nader. For more information about the Congressional Accountability Project, see our web page.

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