Broadcasters are lobbying hard to have the House strip from a campaign spending bill a requirement that they give politicians their lowest advertising rates.
Paid political ads produced about $770 million in revenues for television and radio stations in 2000. But legislation passed by the Senate last year would require that political candidates get the cheapest price charged any advertiser for a given time slot.
Supporters contend the requirement would significantly reduce the cost of running for public office and, consequently, politicians' pursuit of campaign money. But the National Association of Broadcasters says it's a "slippery slope toward mandatory free time."
Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., succeeded last year in including the provision on what is known as the "lowest unit rate" in the Senate-passed campaign spending bill.
The same language is in a House campaign finance bill by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Marty Meehan, D-Mass., to be debated and voted upon this week. However, that could change.
An NAB official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said his group is engaged in an aggressive lobbying effort to remove the provision. Broadcasters consider it a restriction on free speech and a federally mandated discount for politicians.
Matt Keller of Common Cause, an advocacy group that has pushed campaign finance legislation for more than a decade, said it may be tough for Torricelli's provision to survive if the NAB mobilizes against it.
"The NAB is one of the three or four most powerful lobbying groups in Washington," Keller said. It "stands above most others in Washington in terms of having access to people in power."
In the 1999-2000 election cycle, TV and radio stations made some $6.8 million in political contributions, more than triple what they gave in the 1996 presidential election period, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group.
As the fight over broadcast ad rates heats up, Republican leaders are pressing the White House for changes to the overall bill before Wednesday's scheduled vote, arguing that the legislation could doom GOP control of the House.
One administration source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the White House would support a proposal to restrict the ability of unions to use rank-and-file dues for political purposes.
This source also said the administration would support a provision to ban all unregulated "soft money," donations including contributions to state parties that the bill as now written would allow. GOP opponents of the overhaul hope that inclusion of the expanded ban would make the bill unpalatable to some supporters.
It was not clear how hard President Bush would lobby, if at all.
Torricelli, in an interview, described the lobbying activity over ad rates as an "extraordinary subplot" to the House campaign spending debate.
After years of criticizing the campaign finance system, broadcasters now are "lobbying using the same influence of big money to undermine the legislation so that their profits are protected," he said.
Broadcasters insist they faithfully abide by a 30-year-old law that requires them to offer the lowest unit rate for a time spot to federal candidates.
Torricelli said TV stations routinely evade that law by bumping political ads for higher-paying commercial ads or by effectively auctioning off time slots to the highest bidder.
His measure requires that - within 45 days of a primary or 60 days before a general election - TV, cable and satellite providers give non-pre-emptible time to candidates and national parties at the lowest rate they have charged other advertisers during the preceding 180 days.
Torricelli said it is an illusion to believe that campaign spending can be brought under control by limiting contributions but not reducing the costs of campaigning. "Without this amendment I don't believe Shays-Meehan is meaningful," he said.
He conceded that supporters of the bill could pick up some conservatives in the House if his provision was removed. But he said they also could lose crucial backing in the Senate for a final version of the measure because senators rely more heavily on expensive TV ads.
Jim Abrams, Associated Press. February 11, 2002
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