WASHINGTON - One road that could lead American government out of the swamp of campaign-finance corruption may begin with a single step this week at the Federal Communications Commission.
The name of the road is "Free TV" for federal candidates.
Many believe it could curtail the feverish chase for money that candidates today cannot avoid, a demeaning process that appears to be poisoning both the nation's politics and the people's faith in government.
To its detractors however, the Free TV highway leads to an unfair and unconstitutional federal seizure of power and property from the nation's 1,556 private TV broadcasters.
This week - the exact date has not been set - the FCC intends to give those broadcasters a big piece of bait on a tiny little hook. The bait will license each broadcaster to open a second TV channel free - a giveaway of public airwaves ordered by Congress and estimated to be worth up to $70 billion - in a step intended to speed installation of high-definition TV, the next generation of sharper, better TV pictures.
Here's the hook: The FCC will make clear that along with the licenses comes a new obligation for the broadcasters to "serve the public interest." The FCC won't spell out specifically what that public-interest obligation will entail - yet.
But President Clinton believes it should be a requirement for broadcasters to give free TV airtime to candidates for federal office. "Free time for candidates can help free our democracy from the grip of big money," Clinton proclaimed in a recent speech.
The president, who is engulfed in controversy over his relentless efforts to raise campaign money, noted that the major political parties spent over three times as much money in the 1995-96 election cycle as they had four years before.
"The biggest reason for this is the rise in the cost of television," Clinton said. "Presidential campaigns now routinely spend two-thirds or more of their money on paid ads; Senate candidates, 42 percent of their money on television; House races, about a third."
If political TV ads were free, politicians wouldn't have to raise so much money. Then their dependence upon donors seeking favors might be reduced enough to help restore public confidence in the impartiality of government. At least, that's Clinton's hope.
Broadcasters strongly disagree; after all, they sell TV airtime for big money. If politicians' ads are shown for free, broadcasters lose money.
No sooner had Clinton spoken than Edward O. Fritts, president of the powerful National Association of Broadcasters, denounced the idea as ineffective, unworkable and unconstitutional. Maybe it is; NAB intends to test the strength of its arguments in both Congress and the courts.
Opponents also cite practical objections: Why should a New York City TV station give free time to House candidates, when their broadcast reaches voters outside the candidate's district in several states? Why should they give free time for "attack ads"? How would this prevent illegal campaign contributions? Why isn't a TV station's sponsorship of debates enough?
Even people who agree on the principle of requiring free TV time for candidates are split over such practical details as how much time to give, and how to administer it.
Most free-time proposals would attach strings, such as prohibiting "attack ads," requiring only the candidate to appear, and limiting the number of paid ads a campaign could run in addition to free ones. But thrashing out the details will come much later; for now the battle is over whether to do it, not how.
The opening round of this fight will come at the FCC, where Clinton appears to have the edge.
"The FCC has the power, the precedent and the procedures to issue a rule ordering free air time access by candidates. ... The President asked us to take the rule-making steps to do that. I hear the call and I agree with him," said FCC Chairman Reed Hundt.
At present, Hundt doesn't control his commission, which is split 2-2 on this question, with one seat vacant. But Clinton will appoint three new FCC commissioners in coming months, which should strengthen Hundt's hand.
Even though they must be confirmed by the Republican Senate, the senator in charge of screening them will be Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., who favors a free-TV requirement as part of his campaign-finance reform bill. The bill faces an uphill struggle on Capitol Hill, where NAB may be more powerful than the president on this issue.
Faced with so many obstacles, champions of free TV are pursuing a "three-ring circus" strategy.
Ring one is the FCC.
To make sure broadcasters get their new HDTV licenses, even commissioners opposed to free TV for politicians will go along with Hundt's insistence on attaching a new, unspecified "public-interest requirement" to those licenses.
"That puts them on notice" that there's more to come, said a senior FCC official.
Ring two is a new "advisory committee" Clinton created to help define just what "public-interest obligations" broadcasters should meet in exchange for their new, free $70 billion licenses to the public airwaves.
The 15 members of that panel haven't been picked yet, it won't meet before June, and it won't issue its conclusions until June 1, 1998, in a report to Vice President Al Gore. It could become a vehicle for Gore - who has championed free TV his entire career, as did his father - to try to restore his Mr. Clean image.
Ring three is Congress, where free TV is an element of the debate over campaign-finance reform.
Advocates of free TV think the triangular approach will help their cause.
"We're moving, there's movement. I think we're creating the environment and the context" for reform, said Rahm Emanuel, a top White House adviser. "I think all of them create energy ..."
"It does create a lever and a pressure point that may jar things a little more loose," said Paul Taylor, executive director of Free TV for Straight Talk, a private, non-profit advocacy group. "How it all plays out between Congress, the FCC, and the advisory commission is sort of unknowable, but at least some balls are in play, which from where I sit is a lot better than having [filtered word] in play."