There’s been a lot of talk lately about public financing of political campaigns. Personally, I’m skeptical. A true system of public financing would be phenomenally expensive, and I doubt that most Americans want to see that many of their tax dollars used to fund attack ads against candidates they like. (And frankly, I count myself among them.) Nor do I think that most Americans want tax money spent on marginal candidates – you might as well flush that money down the loo – yet this would undoubtedly happen in a public financing system. I suspect most Americans think that their tax dollars are better spent on education, health care, the usual suspects (or even – gasp – a tax cut). And again, I count myself among them.
Yet something must be done about the corrosive effect of money in politics. And everyone knows that a big part of the problem is the cost of buying mass media advertising. So here’s a really good idea that has been kicking around for a while, and that needs to be re-upped in the current discussion:
The Case for Free Air Time
By Paul Taylor, Alliance for Better Campaigns, and
Norman Ornstein, Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute
New America Foundation
June 1, 2002
In our democracy, speech is free but communication is expensiveâand never more so than during the campaign season. As the cost of political communication keeps rising, the competitive playing field of campaigns keeps tilting toward candidates who are wealthy or well-financed. The most effective way to make campaigns more competitive is to ensure that the less well-financed candidate at least has the seed resources to get a message out by creating a system of free air time on broadcast television. The broadcast airwaves are not only the most important communications medium for politics and democracy, they are also a publicly owned asset. Broadcasters, who earn huge profits from this public resource, pay the public nothing in return for its use. It is time for the public to reclaim a share of the airwaves we collectively own to strengthen our democracy.
To best achieve this goal, a free air time system should: 1) require television and radio stations to devote a reasonable amount of air time during the campaign season to issue-based candidate forums such as debates, interviews, and town hall meetings, and 2) require stations to pay a small user fee for the airwaves to provide qualifying candidates and parties with vouchers to run a reasonable number of free ads in the period before an election. These requirements could be imposed on the broadcast industry as a reasonable part of the seven-decade-old public interest obligation broadcasters have pledged to fulfill in return for the free use of the increasingly valuable public airwaves. Or they could emerge as part of a new compact between the public and commercial licensees that better fits a 21st century concept of how best to allocate the airwaves.
You can read the whole 26-page paper at this link.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) backed this idea in 2002. So it’s not a total political non-starter. And it seems to me it’s an experiment well worth trying – it would go a long way toward leveling the playing field between wealthy and non-wealthy candidates, yet it would not entail a massive diversion of scarce public dollars toward a campaign financing system that I rather doubt will work very well.