Campaign Financing Reform Is Easy - Just Say 'Free TV.' (Free Television Exposure to Presidential candidates)(The Last Word)(Column)

Article excerpt

A sure way to bring conversation to sudden cessation is to mention political-campaign funding. Eyes will glaze over and those who have been chatting will remember that they have to go and put fresh water in the canary's cage or some equally compelling chore.

But campaign financing regulation, as it exists and is likely to continue, is not complicated. It's the incumbents' delight -- why play for nickels and one bump on a raise when you're the dealer and you've got a stacked deck.

The good-government choir sings for more "reform" because of reverence for a shred of conventional wisdom: Money buys votes. That notion is brittle and condescending, and there's not much evidence to support it. Michael Huffington, who spent $25 million of his own money running for the U.S. Senate in California in 1994 and lost, might beg to differ.

It is useful to remember, too, that the last major campaign reform -- the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act and 1974 amendments -- gave us PACs, the political action committees that now are held to be the root of all awfulness, plus a whole new federal bureaucracy. Another reform was public financing of elections, a gimmick that struck such a resounding chord that fewer than one in five of us check off a contribution on our income-tax returns.

A recent analysis for the Cato Institute by Bradley A. Smith of the Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, contends, "Our current campaign finance regulations favor incumbents, stifle grassroots activity, distort and constrict political debate and infringe on traditional First Amendment freedoms." He convincingly argues the case, although abandonment of the elaborate regulatory system is, in baseball terms, too hot to handle for politicians.

President Clinton has huffed and puffed about the priority of campaign reform, and the annual blizzard of proposals is swirling around Capitol Hill. The past being prologue and all that, odds are that should Congress extrude a bill, it merely will pile up more underbrush.

A proposal in the Senate by Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Republican John McCain of Arizona has a half-decent feature (the rest is goo-goo boilerplate). This provision would require broadcasters to offer a 50 percent discount for TV ads if candidates are good boys and girls and obey the Feingold-McCain rules of the road. That's the right direction, but the provision does not go far enough.

With a presidential election bearing full-bore, it will be repeated tediously that a principal reason elections have become witless exercises in imagery is television. …