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We should note where the money goes

The Sunday television talk shows were focused on campaign finance reform, but no one was rude enough to suggest that TV itself is at the heart of the problem. The same subject is conspicuous by its absence in the campaign finance debate now under way in the Senate. For a change, the lawmakers are arguing seriously how to regulate the money coming into politics from business, labor and wealthy individuals. But they are ignoring where that money goes.

Voters I've interviewed seem to think this money goes into the coffers of the political parties or into the pockets of the politicians. In fact, the parties and the candidates are the middlemen in this process, writing checks as fast as the contributions arrive.

Many of the checks go to broadcasters for those 30-second ads that, in the final weeks of a campaign, fill the screen during the breaks in local news shows and popular prime-time series.

A report earlier this month from the Alliance for Better Campaigns, a bipartisan public interest group critical of the broadcasters, said that "stations in the top 75 media markets took in at least $771-million . . . from the sale of more than 1.2-million political ads" last year. If the figures for stations in the 135 smaller markets were added, it's estimated that the total take probably reached $1-billion.

That reality is being ignored as senators debate rival measures, all of which have a common feature _ reducing the flow of contributions which pay the campaign television bills. Common sense tells you that if the TV bill remains that exorbitant, politicians will continue the "money chase" under any rules that are in place.

But that fact is suppressed in Senate debate for the same reason it was ignored on the TV talk shows: fear of antagonizing the station owners, who control what gets on the air.

The influence that broadcasters exercise in their home markets is reflected in the power their lobbyists wield in Washington. That is the main reason that the major proposals before the Senate _ one sponsored by Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold and the other crafted by Sen. Chuck Hagel _ have no provisions aimed at reducing the TV charges. Instead, they focus on the high-dollar "soft money" contributions to the political parties. McCain and Feingold would eliminate them; Hagel would limit their size.

The soft-money exemption from the contribution limits that apply to other gifts to candidates and parties was created in order to finance such grass-roots activity as voter registration and Election Day turnout. But now most of the soft money is converted into TV issue ads, indistinguishable for all practical purposes from the candidates' electioneering messages.

The National Association of Broadcasters denies the Alliance for Better Campaigns' charge of price "gouging" in the last campaign. But there are no discounts for issue ads; they are sold at whatever price the market will bear. And the heavy volume of issue ads drove up the cost for all TV spots in the weeks leading up to Election Day, including those placed by candidates, thus fueling the money chase.

Whether the McCain-Feingold bill, or the Hagel substitute, or some blend of the two is passed, campaign cash will continue to flow to those television stations _ and they will continue to charge the candidates and parties what the traffic will bear.

For years, some reform advocates have argued that no new law will be effective unless the cost of television can be brought down. McCain, in fact, has drafted a bill that would require the broadcasters _ in return for their use of the public airways _ to contribute perhaps 1 percent of their earnings to finance vouchers that the parties and candidates could convert into payment for TV spots. Estimates are that it would go a long way toward eliminating the need for private funding of the TV side of campaigns.

But McCain does not plan to offer this as an amendment during the current debate, fearing that the broadcasters' lobby would turn enough votes to kill the underlying bill. It is possible that other senators may offer amendments designed to reduce the need for billion-dollar political TV budgets, but their prospects are poor.

The reality is that any measure that becomes law without such a provision is likely to be no more than a Band-Aid. As long as broadcasters can continue to treat politics as a profit center, not a public responsibility, the money will have to come from somewhere to pay those bills. The current debate focuses too much on the people who write the checks. It's time to question, as well, where the money goes.

David Broder is a Washington Post columnist.

Washington Post Writers Group