simple campaign finance reform

As we see each election cycle, the outcome is largely determined by money raised and spent be each candidate (in the 90s, I recall a Senator had to bring in $15,000 each week of his six year term to be able to defend his seat: that $4,680,000 total has probably gone up a bit since then: $7,500,000, according to [1]) .

There is a lot of talk of campaign finance reform and how to limit the money spent on elections but let’s look at the laws of supply and demand. The demand is for mass media buys – for TV, radio ads as a way of “getting out the message.” Most would agree that the message is not a message at all, just a series of attacks and promises, neither of which would bear any scrutiny.

Rather than limit the amount of money that can be raised, why not remove the largest need for those funds? Why do we have a massive biennial transfer of funds from individuals, PACs, corporations, etc. to media companies whose express purpose is to serve the public interest? I propose we set some standards and limits on how the public airwaves — these are licensed from us, the taxpaying public, not owned — are used in political speech.

  1. All qualified candidates are granted a block of public airtime in the same time slots they buy it now. No shunting them off into the graveyard overnight hours where PSAs languish.
  2. Each spot will have a minimum length: no 15 second attacks or cheap shots. If you can’t fill 30-60 seconds, you got no game — go home. There would be no maximum time: if a candidate wants to put up long-form pieces, that’s up to them.
  3. The grants will not be so generous as to allow a candidate to campaign over the airwaves: personal appearances and debates will have to make up part of the campaign’s messaging strategy.
  4. No other organization, party, or individual will be permitted to buy airtime in support of a candidate.

An additional benefit to this is that it helps defeat the benefits of incumbency. Challengers have an uphill battle based on the need to raise and spend money: remove the need for that and see more frequent infusions of new faces and new ideas in the House and Senate. When you consider that spending more yields an 80% chance of success [2] it’s no surprise we don’t see a lot of energy in national politics.

Oh, sure, some will claim this limits free speech or somehow tampers with the process. When we consider that television advertising in political campaigns only came of age in 1960 — 184 years into the life of the Republic — and examine the quality of political discource since then, I don’t think that argument holds up.



First draft: July 14, 2010

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