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Less Is More

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Politicians have figured out a way to pay less for ads they air at election time. They call it campaign-finance reform.

In their zeal to rid the political process of money's corrupting influence, our senators passed the McCain-Feingold bill. It will give political candidates huge discounts for ads on broadcast and cable TV.

Broadcasters must sell airtime for political spots at the lowest price as the time sold in the previous year. And the practice of bumping political ads off the air in favor of advertisers willing to pay more will be history.

"The future of political discourse won't come with a monumental price tag," said Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., who sponsored this amendment to the larger bill. Public advocacy groups championing campaign-finance reform are delighted.

"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," said Paul Taylor, executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns in Washington.

Broadcasters are furious—although they reaped more than $700 million from TV political ads last year. "Cheaper rates translate into more ads purchased, more political ad clutter and more campaign spending, not less," writes Edward Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, in a letter to all Senate members.

Fritts has a point. Politicians will take advantage of steeper discounted rates, a privilege they already enjoy under the Federal Communications Commission's lowest unit charge rule. Eliminating soft money to improve public discourse was Sen. John McCain's point. Now the campaign volume will be turned up, not down, defeating the original intent of the legislation.

Savvy media buyers know it takes more ads in today's cluttered market to reach their target audience. The buying strategy is based on advertising points.

Twenty years ago, it took 400 points—one ad seen by a viewer about four times a week—to deliver a message effectively. That number has increased to 1,000 points, requiring campaigns to buy 1,200 to 1,400 points to reach the target goal.

Determined to do even more mischief, legislators have also devised a plan (the Wellstone Amendment) to strangle free speech by restricting special-interest groups issue ads that name and "promote candidates" within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a general election. That's called reform, too.

Sen. McCain opposed this amendment but lost. Banning a special-interest group's right to free speech (nonprofit groups, for-profit corporations, labor unions and trade associations) two months before an election is not likely to win constitutional approval. Ideally, the campaign-finance rules should force issue advertisers to disclose who is buying the ad. Secrecy is the real problem.

If Congress wants to stop the stealth tactics used by well-heeled interest groups to derail candidates, it can look elsewhere for help: It's called a more vigilant press.