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Stump the Candidates

Those who follow how large campaign donations flow in Washington know that attempts to regulate that mighty river will fail. Politicians will eventually build a legal canal to receive the money they need for their biggest campaign expense: TV advertising.

That flaw became clear over the weekend when the highly politicized Federal Election Commission opened up a loophole in a newly passed law banning "soft money" (the money given to national political parties, not candidates).

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The FEC's rule lets federal candidates and officeholders go on the stump as speakers at state and local party fundraising events. In effect, that means, as the law's sponsors claim, "with a wink and a nod" the tie between soft money and candidates would not be severed.

Such sleight of hand is a good reason to support the next reform effort in Congress: guaranteed airtime for major candidates on network TV.

The four horsemen of campaign reform – Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold and Reps. Christopher Shays and Martin Meehan – plan to file a bill that would give enough TV time for candidates so perhaps they wouldn't become beholden to big donors.

Since broadcast TV is still a federal charge, the networks would need to comply – unless, of course, donations of their parent companies find open pockets among members of Congress.

Broadcasters took in more than $1 billion in political ad revenue during 2000. They won't like being told to devote two hours a week during campaign season to election coverage, as the new bill requires.

The bill's writers say a candidate deserving of free airtime must be on the ballot and have raised a threshold amount from small donors. Those amounts have yet to be determined. If they're too low, too many very minor candidates will crowd the available broadcast space. But if too high, then a candidate like Ralph Nader might be excluded.

Requiring airtime for candidates should expand opportunities for qualified people of every stripe, and give voters more information to make better decisions. If successful, the intrepid reformers in Congress and their many outside supporters will have struck at the heart of political corruption.