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Campaigns are too expensive. In theory, the FCC could change that.

May 16, 2018

Yesterday I mentioned a candidate for Congress who was frustrated that he had to spend so much time attempting to raise the money needed to run a competitive race.

He’s far from alone. Virtually every candidate I know complains about the same thing. These days, running in a competitive congressional race costs millions.

Worse, you have to raise that much every two years. Even established members of Congress in solidly safe districts, like Michigan’s Brenda Lawrence, spend well over half a million dollars every two years, more than their annual salaries of $174,000.

Begging for money gets to be tedious. David Bonior, the former House Majority Whip, was first elected to Congress in 1976, and had to win both a crowded primary and a hotly contested general election to do so. The entire cost, he told me, was $36,000.

Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $155,000 today, which wouldn’t even be enough to get you a state legislative seat. By the time he voluntarily retired in 2002, Bonior had to raise more than a million dollars every two years, and he hated it. It’s far worse today.

The huge cost of campaigning isn’t just limited to federal office. Michigan still has a law on the books providing matching public funding for gubernatorial campaigns, but the sums available are so paltry virtually everyone raises private money instead.

Last year, a talented young woman asked me if she should run for the Legislature. She was highly experienced, educated, and accomplished, and had a meaningful policy job. I asked her if she had at least $300,000 to throw into a campaign.

She stared at me in utter shock. I explained that it would cost at least that much, and there was no guarantee she’d get past the primary. Being sane, she gave up the idea.

People tried for years to do something to limit spending, but in 2010 the door was slammed in their faces by the U.S. Supreme Court in the infamous Citizens’ United case.

The justices essentially ruled that money is speech, and you can’t limit speech, so that’s that. There are those who hope the high court will reverse itself, but that’s extremely unlikely. Passing a constitutional amendment to change that would take years.

But I have an idea: Most of the really big money spent for campaigns goes for broadcast advertising on TV and radio. Nobody can do anything about print or the internet. But the airwaves are like the national parks. The government owns and regulates them.

The Federal Communications Commission, the FCC, used to require all broadcast stations to offer programming “in the public interest,” meaning news. They also were forbidden to promote one side of an issue without giving the other equal time.

That was called the Fairness Doctrine, and it was repealed by the FCC in 1987. But the FCC could reclaim its teeth, and use them. Imagine a new president naming new FCC commissioners dedicated to reform. They could insist on severely regulating campaign advertising over the airwaves, maybe insisting each candidate got equal time.

That wouldn’t affect satellite or cable, but it would have a major impact, and one that might reduce campaigns’ crippling cost. And if we really want a representative democracy that’s not limited to multi-millionaires and those who are the tools of lobbyists, we better do something.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.