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Free TV may be a viable reform

One door to reforming the campaign finance system was closed last week but another, more promising one was pushed further open.

A Senate vote proved conclusively that the Constitution will not be amended this year to make government regulation of political spending easier. After a few days of desultory debate, the Senate voted 61-38 to kill a constitutional amendment that would have allowed Congress and the legislatures to set "reasonable limits" on spending for federal and state elections. The amendment would have reversed a 1976 Supreme Court decision that said unless a candidate voluntarily accepts spending limits, restrictions on the size of his campaign treasury violate his First Amendment freedom of speech.

The proposed amendment was adapted from one Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., has offered in the past and was endorsed this year by the Democratic leaders of the Senate and House.

The public clearly wants reform, and many members of Congress also would like to stop the runaway fund-raising race. However, 11 of the 45 Democrats and 50 of the 54 voting Republicans discerned the danger the amendment posed to essential democratic freedoms. As Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, pointed out in debate, incumbents would be sorely tempted to decide that a "reasonable limit" on spending was so low that challengers would effectively have no chance to compete against someone enjoying the perks of office.

The broader threat to First Amendment freedoms was pointed up by the extraordinary range of organizations that sent representatives to a news conference organized before the vote by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the leading opponent of the Hollings amendment and of other legislative efforts to limit campaign spending.

They included not only such Republican allies as the National Rifle Association, the Christian Coalition, the National Right to Life Committee, the National Association of Realtors and the National Association of Business Political Action Committees, but such liberal organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Education Association and the National Rural Letter Carriers union. Disagree as they might on other issues, they came together out of a shared conviction that, as McConnell put it, the proposed amendment would "cut a big hunk out of the First Amendment."

That is a fear not easily dismissed. Earlier in the same week, a more hopeful note emerged from a conference arranged by Paul Taylor, executive director of the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition, working with the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Taylor, a former Washington Post reporter now employed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, enlisted Walter Cronkite and a host of other big names, who last fall pressured television broadcasters into giving presidential candidates blocks of free time to speak personally and directly to the voters.

The conference reviewed the results of that experiment and debated what might come next. The report card, prepared by the Annenberg Center and released last week, gave mixed grades. With the broadcast times varying from network to network (instead of the nightly, prime-time slot Taylor had hoped for) and with little publicity, the programs were seen by only one-fifth of the voters surveyed _ most of them already avid consumers of political information.

On the other hand, the programs were judged to be informative and relatively free of personal attacks and inflammatory language.

Cronkite told the conference that it is now incumbent on the networks to expand the free time option and promote the programs better. President Clinton said that the Federal Communications Commission should make free time for candidates part of the "public service requirement" broadcasters must fulfill in return for their free (and highly profitable) use of the public airwaves.

There was some dissent. A pair of political consultants, one from each party, predictably objected to the requirement that the candidates speak for themselves in free time. The emotion-laden visual images and sound effects they love would be barred by this requirement _ an infringement, they said, on their First Amendment rights and a barrier to effective communication.

Edward O. Fritts, the head of the National Association of Broadcasters, told me afterward that the free time proposal was in some respects unworkable and unwise _ and, yes, an assault on the First Amendment.

The practical problems in the free time plan need to be addressed. But the First Amendment claims from the broadcasters and the consultants strike me as being much weaker than those that sank the constitutional amendment. This idea holds promise.

But there are also other worthy ideas being generated by scholars, political consultants and veterans of the campaign wars. A blue-ribbon commission that could incorporate them in a package that Congress would have to reject or accept without amendment strikes me as a valuable device.

Washington Post Writers Group