THE most respected presidential candidate, Paul Tsongas, was forced to withdraw from the race for lack of funds to finance television advertising. TV ads, which often are the biggest campaign expense, should be the focus of reforms to cleanse American politics of the corrupting influence of special-interest money.
In presidential primaries, the government matches private contributions. Special-interest money has even greater impact in Senate and House races, which have no public funding. According to Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, from 1974 to 1988 media spending in competitive Senate races rose almost seven times in constant dollars. In 1988, broadcast advertising consumed 40 to 60 percent of Senate candidates' budgets, and up to 80 percent in some close contests.
From 1974 to 1988, spending on House campaigns rose from $53.5 million to $256.5 million.
These mammoth expenses not only drive out thoughtful candidates like Mr. Tsongas, they also enlarge the opportunities for special-interest PACs (like the S&L industry) to prey on the public interest. Political paybacks to these contributors add tens of billions of dollars to the federal deficit. Advertising and other expenses also contribute to the incumbency advantages that have reduced competition in Senate races and made tenure in the House of Representatives as secure as in the old Supreme Soviet - w ith the corruption that inevitably follows virtual one-party rule.
Campaign reform is deadlocked in Congress, with the two parties differing on whether to abolish PACs and on public financing in congressional races. The bills that have passed each body, however, contain provisions reducing costs for broadcast advertising. Candidates now pay higher rates than business advertisers.
But reform should be bolder. The United States should adopt the practice of other leading democracies and allow free television time for elections to major offices. We should employ television to benefit our democracy, rather than force candidates to market themselves like soap to enrich the broadcast industry.
Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and others allow free television time for party political broadcasts. France, which alone of the five popularly elects its chief of state, also allows free time for those candidates. Three of the countries allow no paid advertising to supplement the free broadcasts. The US should allow free time only to candidates for federal office, not to the parties. It may be best to require the candidates to appear alone, rather than allow production extravaganzas. This would
force candidates to address issues in more depth and mitigate against much-criticized negative ads. It would inject more substance into our sound-bite politics and help level the field for challengers.
This proposal presents obvious difficulties - in presidential races with crowded fields, for example. We would have to decide whether to forbid paid advertising to candidates who accept free time, which also raises First Amendment issues. But surely some mechanism can be devised.
The Supreme Court held long ago that the public owns the airwaves, of which broadcasters are the licensees. In 1988, these licensees amassed more than $20 billion in ad revenues, according to Arbitron. Campaign advertising, a huge burden for candidates, is a mere pittance for the industry: 1 to 4 percent of the total, it says - even less, others claim. Public financing of presidential campaigns means that taxpayer dollars fatten broadcaster profits.
The broadcast industry will vociferously protest. But the expense of TV advertising is a handmaiden of special-interest influence, and its commercial format debases democratic debate. Reform is crucial if we are to revitalize our democracy and confront, rather than evade, the profound problems that threaten us.