McCain, Feingold & Company Unveil Free Air Time Proposal

June 19, 2002

Madison - Senators Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin), John McCain (R-Arizona), Robert Torricelli (D-New Jersey) and Representative Martin Meehan (D-Massachusetts) today launched the next phase of campaign finance reform at the national level by unveiling the key elements of a bill that will reduce the cost and increase the flow of campaign communication on the nation’s television and radio stations, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign announced.

"Providing free air time is a crucial step we can take to make sure our democracy is open to the candidates with the best ideas, not just the most money," the legislators said in a joint statement. "This proposal simply tells broadcasters to give back to the American people some of the extraordinary benefits they have reaped from the public airwaves they are licensed to use for free."

At a Washington, D.C. press conference this morning, the lawmakers said free air time was a vital follow-up to their recently-enacted bill outlawing "soft money," the checks of unlimited size to political parties. That legislation is designed to reduce the supply of political money. Free air time is designed to reduce the demand. The new bill will include these elements:

  • It will require that all television and radio broadcast license holders devote at least two hours a week of candidate-centered and issue-centered programming - in the form of debates, interviews, town hall meetings, etc. - in the weeks before primary and general elections. At least half must air in or near prime time; none could air between midnight and 6 a.m.
  • It will create a voucher system that will enable qualifying candidates and political parties to place a reasonable number of ads on the television or radio stations of their choice. Federal candidates will qualify for vouchers by raising a threshold level of small dollar donations. Qualifying national parties will receive block grants of vouchers in each two-year cycle, which they can use on behalf of local, state or federal general election candidates.
  • The voucher system will be funded by an annual spectrum usage fee on all broadcast license holders, amounting to not more than one percent of gross annual revenues.

The Democracy Campaign is a state partner of the national Alliance for Better Campaigns, which has assembled a coalition of more than 50 national groups that support free air time. WDC is leading the Free Air Time Coalition’s efforts in Wisconsin.

Alliance for Better Campaigns president Paul Taylor said, "Broadcasters have become the leading cause of the high cost of modern politics. They gouge candidates on ad rates while they cut back on serious campaign coverage. To add insult to injury, they do so with public property they've been given licenses to use for free. This bill will open up our political process to more ideas and more candidates, including those without vast personal wealth or special interest support. It will enhance the value of small dollar donations, strengthen political parties and provide citizens with more information and more choice."

The national Free Air Time Coalition includes the AARP, AFL-CIO, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the Interfaith Alliance, the NAACP, the National Civic League, the National Council of Churches, Public Citizen, the Sierra Club, the New America Foundation, the Youth Vote Coalition, U.S. PIRG and others. The Coalition also includes local and state activists who will be conducting dozens of forums around the country on the free air time issue this summer and fall.

A key leader of the national coalition, legendary TV anchor Walter Cronkite, called on "the industry I have proudly served for six decades" to support the new measure. "They make windfall profits from the sale of political ads, but too often fail to invest the time or resources needed to provide the sort of issue-based coverage that helps create a better-informed electorate."

AFL-CIO president John J. Sweeney added, "Providing free broadcast time to federal candidates would help give voters the information they need to make informed decisions at the polls. This much-needed reform would also reduce the impact of money on campaigns and give candidates more access to voters by making broadcast time more available."

Common Cause president Scott Harshbarger said, "The airwaves are a public trust and television time to make our democracy work is the least we can ask from broadcasters. But try telling them that. With control of the nation’s airwaves and soft money contributions of close to $4 million last year, the television industry is a powerful lobbying force. Substantive free air time legislation has to be the next reform to help level the playing field between incumbents with millions to spend and new candidates who do not have special interest support."

Democracy 21 president Fred Wertheimer said, "This legislation addresses two fundamental problems in the existing campaign finance system: the need for candidates to have disinterested resources to run their campaigns and for congressional challengers to have sufficient resources to restore sorely lacking competition to congressional elections."

Free Air Time Facts