Once a Senator, Never a Saint

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Here is my take on John McCain’s record with wealthy interests in the Senate, and the problem of “appearance” for a long-time campaign finance and ethics reformer. From the next issue of the magazine, the story includes this anecdote:

In some cases, McCain’s intervention on causes that favored donors appeared to be exceptional. Consider the committee meeting that McCain led on June 23, 1999. The topic of the day was a proposal to require access to 911 emergency services for cellular phones. But McCain scrambled the script with just a few hours’ notice. He introduced an unrelated amendment that would force the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allow companies to own two television stations in the same market. Democrats were outraged by the move, since it violated McCain’s own rule requiring Senators to give a full day’s notice before introducing amendments, a practice he put in place to prevent under-the-radar legislative tampering.

“We do not ambush the committee,” objected South Carolina Democrat Fritz Hollings at the hearing, accusing McCain of trying to squeeze through the amendment “in the dark of night.” Hollings was also upset that McCain’s proposal would upend a rulemaking process at the FCC.

Hearing the objection, McCain dropped his amendment, but the incident left a bad taste with several of the committee’s Democrats. They knew that smaller television companies were pushing hard to loosen the FCC rules. Two of those companies were Glencairn and Paxson Communications, which had hired Hector Alcalde to represent them before McCain, with apparently good results. One month after the hearing, McCain met with the head of Glencairn, Eddie Edwards. Nine days later, at least three members of the Edwards family gave McCain maximum donations of $1,000 each.

Three Democratic staffers present at the markup that day say they were convinced that McCain had proposed the last-minute amendment because of pressure from Alcalde, whom they remember as being seated near the front of the room. “At any given time, there are 100 different amendments to the Communications Act that John McCain believes in,” noted a staffer. “He happened to do the one that was being pushed by the people who were raising money for him and whose representative was sitting in the third row.” (Through a spokesman, McCain says he never expected the amendment to be accepted and only introduced it to “send a message” to the FCC. Alcalde says he did not request the amendment and does not recall attending the hearing.)