President Clinton said Tuesday he wants to require broadcasters to give candidates free television time, saying that would “help free our democracy from the grip of big money.”
He also used a morning speech to press Congress for passage of a bipartisan proposal to reform the laws governing donations.
But within hours, Clinton attended two “grip-and-grin” fund-raisers, where donors paid as much as $25,000 per person to share time with him. Under the campaign reform Clinton supports, 90 percent of the money raised at the second event would be illegal.
Clinton proposed that broadcasters be required to offer free television time to candidates when they receive licenses for digital television broadcasting, a technology still being developed. Within the next several years, broadcasters are expected to move from using analog signals to digital signals, which will improve picture quality and increase the number of broadcast channels.
“I believe broadcasters who receive digital licenses should provide free air time for candidates, and I believe the FCC should act to require free air time for candidates,” Clinton said. “Free air time for candidates can help free our democracy from the grip of big money.”
Later, Federal Communications Commission chairman Reed Hundt said he believes the requirements for broadcasters are within reach - with or without legislative action.
“The FCC has the power, precedent and procedures to issue a rule ordering free air time access by candidates,” he said. Under federal law, the FCC is required to ensure that all spectrum users serve the “public interest, convenience and necessity” and the agency has exercised this power numerous times - banning cigarette ads, for instance, and regulating children’s television.
The president challenged broadcasters to provide free air time without delay, before the new television technology comes on line. “I believe it should be available, especially to candidates who limit their own spending,” Clinton said.
Clinton also signed an executive order Tuesday creating an advisory committee charged with recommending within a year guidelines for broadcasters’ public-interest obligations.
Although Clinton did not mention directly the campaign fund-raising controversies dogging the Democratic Party and his White House, he stressed a possible silver-lining to the broadening donations scandals.
“We have to use the present intense interest in this - as well as the controversy over fund-raising in the last election and all the publicity over it - as a spur to action,” Clinton told a friendly audience attending a conference on free television and political reform.
In an apparent reference to partisan differences over the scope of congressional investigations of fundraising practices, Clinton added: “We cannot let it become what it is in danger of becoming, which is an excuse for inaction.”
Although the FCC does not currently require broadcasters to offer access to candidates, several television networks offered the 1996 presidential candidates free air time. President Clinton and Republican challenger Bob Dole made 25 free appearances - ranging in length from one minute to 2.5 minutes - in the last months of the campaign, according to Hundt.
Clinton’s first stop Tuesday evening was a campaign fund-raiser for Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, D-N.D., at the Hay-Adams Hotel just across Lafayette Park from the White House. The second event was an exclusive Democratic National Committee fundraiser for some of its “large” donors - those individuals who previously gave more than $10,000 or corporations who gave $15,000 or more.
In the ornate Crystal Ballroom of Washington’s Sheraton-Carlton Hotel, 24 men and 13 women joined President Clinton for a $25,000-a-plate dinner.
The donors - labor leaders, attorneys, bankers and business people - listened as Clinton pitched his proposals for campaign financing reform.
The event was expected to yield $575,000 - 90 percent of it in so-called soft money donations - large, unregulated donations to political parties - which would be outlawed under the McCain-Feingold bill.
An ebullient Clinton told donors that “there is much more to do” and praised Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, general chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and national chairman Steve Grossman for putting the Democratic Party “four-square on the side of passing campaign finance reform this year.” xxxx THE MENU Clinton attended a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser Tuesday in the Crystal Ballroom of Washington’s Sheraton-Carlton Hotel. For $25,000, diners ate swordfish, mixed greens, spring vegetables and candied chestnut ice cream.