The McCain irony: Reform's champion rakes in the bucks
By John F. Dickerson and Viveca Novak
November 1, 1999
Web posted at: 12:10 p.m. EST (1710 GMT)
The price of admission was $1,000 for the high-tech executives
gathered last June at the Washington mansion of America Online
honcho George Vradenburg. Guest of honor Senator John McCain took
the balcony. "The difference between me and the Democrats,"
McCain joked, "is that the Democrats want everyone to have a
house. I want everyone to have a house like this."
Why were all these smiling tech gurus, including AOL chairman
Steve Case, clumped around McCain? Did they think the G.O.P.
long shot would be the next President? Maybe, but they were more
certain he will continue as chairman of the Senate Commerce
Committee, which oversees their companies. "We can't afford not
to contribute," says a lobbyist.
Is this any way for a "maverick" to behave? Last week Elizabeth
Dole dropped out of the presidential race, crying poverty.
Meanwhile, McCain's day job lets him play at Washington's
favorite pastime, taking donations from corporations that can be
made or broken by his committee.
The irony is that the champion of campaign finance reform uses
the system he runs against to get the money to stay in the race.
It's working. He's second in New Hampshire. It "rings a little
hollow," complained Senate majority leader Trent Lott of McCain's
Guilty, says McCain. "I know there is an appearance problem. But
I have never pressured a lobbyist to contribute...I am sure
there are more than a few who wished I had done their bidding."
To reject donations by companies he regulates--as some
suggest--would put him out of competition, he says. He also says
the donations are too small to be corrupting--$1,000 from
individuals and $5,000 from political-action committees.
McCain's reforms are aimed not at individuals but at the
unlimited amounts that corporations, unions and others can give
to a political party, so-called soft money. Last week his bill to
outlaw those donations died in the Senate in what has become
almost an annual ritual.
The harder McCain pushes for reform, the bigger a target he
becomes. Republicans who want to keep the spigot open have spread
rumors of dark deals the Arizonan has cut for donors. One such
story: his change of mind on rules to ease export limits on
technology to scramble and unscramble everything from computer
images to phone conversations. McCain's worries about national
security kept him from bending to Silicon Valley's arguments that
such controls would hamper U.S. companies' ability to compete.
After a long lobbying effort, he came around--though just how much
is a matter of debate. He says the national interest could be
protected by giving the President a veto over exports.
A clear-cut case of McCain's changing his position for campaign
cash hasn't surfaced, and compared with those of some
presidential rivals, his corporate donations are puny.
Industries that are in his thrall one week, he points out, are
often pummeling him the next. He harangues cable companies whose
rates he says are too high. Long-distance carriers think he
favors local phone companies. "He feels he's entitled to take
your money at the same time he feels he's entitled to kick your
ass," says a telcom executive. This week he will disappoint
another set of donors, proposing to end oil and gas tax breaks
to pay for school vouchers. Oil and gas companies have given
more than $78,000 to his campaigns in recent years.
Still, it's not likely to stop them from ponying up next time a
McCain fund raiser calls. And their contributions will keep the
McCain contradiction afloat, giving him resources to keep rising
in the polls by railing against the system.
--By John F. Dickerson
and Viveca Novak
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Cover Date: November 1, 1999