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A Debate about the Debates: Hearing Held on Two Congressional Bills That Would Regulate the Presidential Election Debates

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

A Debate about the Debates: Hearing Held on Two Congressional Bills That Would Regulate the Presidential Election Debates

Article excerpt

Hearing held on two congressional bills that would regulate the presidential election debates

TWO BILLS THAT would regulate presidential election debates have been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.

H.R. 2003, the National Presidential Debates Act of 1993, introduced by Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), would require candidates receiving matching funds to participate in a series of debates both during the primary season and leading up to the general election.

H.R. 1753, the Democracy in Presidential Debates Act of 1993, introduced by Rep. Timothy J. Penny (D-Minn.), addresses the issue of third-party candidates and sets parameters to ensure their inclusion in the debates.

A hearing on both bills produced a great deal of information about the debates in 1992 and issues such as format, sponsorship and third-party candidates.

While opinions were mixed, there was general agreement that the presidential debates have become institutionalized and are likely to play a part in future elections, though not necessarily in any particular format.

In fact, Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., cochair of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), told the Committee on House Administration's Subcommittee on Elections that the legislation was not needed precisely because the debates have become institutionalized.

Becky Cain, chair of the League of Women Voters Education Fund, agreed that debates "are largely institutionalized now" and added that she does not believe "any major-party candidate for president or vice president can safely refuse to participate in a debate in the foreseeable future."

A First Amendment argument against congressional requirements to debate came from Bobby R. Burchfield, a partner in the Washington law firm of Covington & Burling, who served as general counsel to President Bush's reelection campaign and participated in the debate negotiations.

Burchfield's testimony argued that such legislation would have serious First Amendment ramifications.

"Throughout our nation's history, candidates have always been afforded the latitude to determine how they will conduct their campaigns and whether speeches, television appearances, newspaper interviews or presidential debates are the most effective way of communicating their messages," he testified.

"If a candidate exercised his or her First Amendment right to refuse to participate in presidential debates ... [the legislation] would take away all of that candidate's federal funding," Burchfield pointed out. "This condition therefore violates the First Amendment."

Burchfield also noted that "despite the provisions for public funding of House and Senate campaigns in the bill, the sponsors have not seen fit to vindicate the supposedly important public interest in debates by requiring House and Senate candidates who receive taxpayers' money to debate."

A former official of the Clinton/Gore campaign, Harold Ickes Jr., former vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, also testified against legislating the debates.

Ickes pointed to the "uniqueness of any set of negotiations of debates," which he said would be "virtually impossible to legislate" as well as it being a "mistake for Congress to get into those areas."

"In my view, if Congress does [enact legislation], it should only require debates," Ickes said, cautioning against going any further.

Television news executives from ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC testified before the subcommittee about their experiences with the 1992 presidential debates and the various formats, some used for the first time.

Among those who appeared or submitted testimony were Hal Bruno, director of political coverage for ABC News and the vice presidential debate moderator in 1992; Marty Plissner, political director of CBS News; Tom Hannon, executive producer of CNN's 1992 campaign election coverage; and William O. …

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