Senate Votes to Curb Campaign Ad Costs

The amendment to campaign finance reform legislation would uphold current law requiring stations to give candidates for office the lowest rate offered throughout the year. Sponsored by Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), the full Senate approved the measure by a 70 to 30 vote.

Included in the amendment is a new clause prohibiting networks from dropping candidates’ spots in favor of advertisers willing to pay higher prices.

Today, the Senate added a measure requiring candidates seeking those reduced advertising rates to either appear in or speak in ads mentioning or attacking an opponent.

Debating ad costs

Discussing his proposal yesterday, Torricelli and others criticized stations for routinely bumping campaign advertising in favor of more lucrative ads.

“They’ll sell you the time,” Torricelli said of broadcasters, “you’ll just never see [the ad] on television … they show them in the middle of the night.”

Torricelli said candidates spent more than $700 million on TV ads in 2000, up 76 percent from 1996. A study by the Alliance for Better Campaigns, a non-profit group promoting free air time for political candidates, says office-seekers in 10 surveyed markets paid prices an average of 65 percent higher than stations’ lowest rates.

With that kind of money rolling in, Torricelli said, broadcasters are engaging in an “incredible hypocrisy” by questioning candidates’ campaign spending.

“They want change, they just don’t want to be a part of it,” he said.

But Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) worried such a measure would be “catastrophic” for small independent stations, and said the plan invaded the rights of local television operators.

Before the vote, Edward O. Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, sent a letter to senators urging them to fight proposals for reduced ad costs.

“The National Association of Broadcasters views further discounted airtime, beyond the already discounted Lowest Unit Charge , as a slippery slope toward mandatory free time,” the letter said. “We believe these amendments are an attempt to reform campaign finance on the backs of broadcasters.”

Following the vote yesterday, Fritts said the approved amendment would lead to an increase in the number of ads hitting the airwaves rather than a drop in campaign spending.

“The Senate has voted itself a multi-million dollar windfall,” he said. “The Torricelli amendment will not reduce the cost of campaigns, but rather will unleash a torrent of negative attack ads. Only in Washington can this be called reform.”

But Alliance for Better Campaigns President Paul Taylor said the amendment would force stations to live up to their public interest obligations.

“By a 70-30 vote, the Senate made it clear that it will no longer tolerate an industry using billions of dollars worth of public airwaves that it has been granted free of charge to profiteer on democracy by gouging candidates on their ad rates,” he said.

The Torricelli measure was one of several amendments scheduled for discussion as the debate over campaign finance reform continues in the Senate.

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