COPIOUS tears are shed over the influence of Big Money in the American political process. You've got to be a millionaire to get elected, it is said, and it's nearly impossible for challengers to campaign successfully against entrenched, moneyed incumbents.
"We've got to control campaign spending," the lament goes. "It's all the fault of Big Money," the network reporters, from Ted Koppel to Sam Donaldson, tell us.
They're all right, of course. Too much money is spent. Alan Cranston, the California Democrat rebuked by the Senate for "improper and repugnant" behavior in intervening with federal regulators on behalf of a big contributor, apologized the other day for violating the body's ethical rules, but he added quickly that every senator was also a violator. He urged a reform of campaign financing and said the solution lies in "keeping money out of politics."
Right. Right. Right. But few people talk about why it costs so much to run for national public office. The reason isn't hard to find. It's because incumbents and television networks all thrive on the system as it is and show little desire to change it.
But there is a way out. It will make it tougher for incumbents to get re-elected (without limiting the number of terms they can serve), and it will cut into television profits. But it will surely be good for the country.
The fact is that the biggest reason for the bloated cost of election campaigns is the outlay for appearances on television, and that includes the exorbitant cost of producing those illuminating commercials that are so helpful in distorting what the election is all about.
At one stroke, we can eliminate those costs, make it easier for opponents to challenge incumbents and do great service to weary citizens, who would no longer, as election day approached, find their TV sets overflowing with slanted ads.
By denying TV (and radio) stations the right to charge fees for political advertising. They could allow the ads, all right, but only for free. First Amendment rights would not be interfered with, because the ads would not be banned.
No one knows precisely how much money television and radio earn from political advertising, but it's plenty. Stations (over-the-air and cable) are not likely to give away their precious time free to political candidates when they can fill up that air
space with money-paying ads for beer, autos and deodorants.
The stations could, and no doubt would, make some time (probably not prime time) available to candidates for free as "public service announcements," but they would not be likely to give more and better time to their favored candidates. If they did, opponents surely would raise a challenge, and the door would be opened for a return of the much-hated "fairness doctrine."
The proposed no-pay-for-TV-ads rule could be issued either by the Federal Communications Commission acting on orders from President Bush, or by a law enacted by Congress. To vote against a rule (or veto a measure) certain to be backed by a viewing public weary of such commercials would involve a political risk that few lawmakers would be likely to take.
At least one prominent TV honcho has already offered a somewhat similar plan. Newton Minow, who was President Kennedy's Federal Communications Commission chairman (the man who called TV a "vast wasteland"), proposed in a speech last May that public funds be used to pay TV stations for all political spots so that candidates won't find themselves "deeply in hock to special interests" -- as, indeed, was Cranston.
I would go further. The no-pay-for-TV-ads rule recommended here would no doubt be challenged in court. What a trial that would make! If the case ever went to the Supreme Court, imagine the dilemma for Bush's appointees. After all, no one has spent more on TV than the president. It costs a senator about $15,000 a week to pay for a political campaign, and most of that goes for TV commercials.
There is almost universal criticism of the high cost of campaigning, of the difficulty of challenging incumbents, of the negative nature of so much campaigning and of the decline in influence and power of the political parties.
The clamor for term limitation has come about because of anxiety about all these problems. That's the easy way out, a Band-Aid approach that fails to note the hidden dangers to democratic institutions of limiting terms. In fact, term limitation might even bolster the influence of Big Money.
To adopt a no-pay-for-TV-ads policy would, however, strike at nearly all of the defects in the election process at once -- and without damaging the country's democratic institutions.
J. Herbert Altschull teaches in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.