Regulating Political Campaign Advertising on Television, Cable; Congress Holds Hearings on Three Proposed Bills

Article excerpt

CAMPAIGN REFORM IS a hot topic on Capitol Hill these days, but finances are not the only phase of running for office under scrutiny from legislators.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation's Communications Subcommittee recently held a hearing on three bills designed to regulate campaign advertising that is broadcast and on cable.

The bills, amendments to the Communications Act of 1934, set forth regulations for the content of political broadcast and cable ads, such as clearly identifying the candidate, as well as when and at what cost ads should run, and the length of such ads.

Opponents of the measures argued that such regulation comes dangerously close to violating First Amendment free speech rights, while those in favor of the legislation pointed to the need for an end to the slick, nasty political ads of previous campaigns.

For example, in his opening statement, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) noted that if similar legislation were proposed for any other medium, such as a newspaper, it would be "troubling or problematic."

As such, he asked, "How can we apply such regulation to broadcasting and cable?"

On the other side, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), testified on behalf of the bill he sponsored, S.829, which would apply the lowest unit rate charge to political ads that are at least five minutes long and in which the candidate appears at least 75% of the time.

"These requirements would force candidates to communicate with voters in a more constructive basis than is possible in a 30-second spot.

"The advent of electronic communications television has provided an unprecedented opportunity to take bitter, negative politics to a new level," Sen. Dorgan charged. "The result has been a degeneration of campaign discourse to [an] all-time low."

Dorgan referred to these campaigns as a "carnival of excess that is not thoughtful [but] is thoughtless, if anything."

The other bills addressed at the hearing were: S.329, introduced by Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), which shortens the period for offering the lowest unit rate for political ads, prohibits distinctions between pre-emptable and non-pre-emptable time for political ads, and requires candidates to take responsibility for their ads by clearly identifying themselves as being behind the ads; and S.334, introduced by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S. C.), which requires that all references to their opponents be made by the candidates themselves.

Sen. Danforth pointed out that his bill still allows the ads to be "as slimy as before," but requires the candidates to take responsibility for them.

"At least let them be brave enough to show their own hands when they throw the mud," he said.

Curtis B. Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, argued that because many of these ads appeal to emotions, they are unanswerable. …

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