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The Same Old Story of Lobbyists and Power?

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/mccain.jpgWDCpix

Roughly two decades ago, after abetting a lobbying scandal that cost the taxpayers billions and almost torpedoed his political career, Sen. John McCain sought to recast himself in the mold of an untouchable, business-as-unusual Washington crusader. This week, reports suggesting that the Arizona Republican performed political favors for industry on behalf of a lobbyist have challenged the legitimacy of that carefully crafted persona. But if the much-hyped story is truly one of lobbyists’ influence over Washington’s policy-makers — and not merely another media sideshow surrounding the presidential race — then the real scandal, campaign reform advocates say, has much less to do with McCain than it does with the system that created him.

“The system that we have right now will always raise questions about conflicts of interest,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, a non-partisan campaign finance reform group. “It’s a system that’s corrupting by the very structure of it.”

Congress_4476.jpg
Congress_4476.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

In McCain’s case, the ado arrived this week in the form of a front-page report in The New York Times that the former Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee chairman had written letters to the Federal Communications Commission a decade ago urging regulatory actions that would benefit companies represented by Vicki Iseman, a Washington lobbyist with close ties to McCain. Citing anonymous sources, the news report implied that the relationship — aside from moving the senator to take specific political actions — was also romantic.

Democrats pounced on the news, accusing the four-term senator of hypocrisy. “[A]fter 25 years in Washington, the real John McCain is just like the other D.C. insiders he rails against on the campaign trail,” the Democratic National Committee posted on its Web site yesterday.

McCain took the podium yesterday — his wife, Cindy, at his side — to denounce the allegations as a malicious concoction of the liberal media. “At no time,” he said, “have I ever done anything that would betray the public trust or make a decision which in any way would not be in the public interest or would favor anyone or organization.”

But, watchdog groups say, sticking to vows of political-favor celibacy is no easy task in a system bloated with special-interest dollars, particularly for a high-profile committee chairman. In this sense, McCain is not so much a corruptible figure as he is a product of his environment.

Candidates at this point basically owe their jobs to moneyed interests

“Candidates at this point basically owe their jobs to moneyed interests,” said Deborah Goldberg, director of the Democracy program at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice. “It takes a heroic effort to resist the temptations that are put into place.”

McCain has not been shy about taking corporate donations. Since 1989, the former Navy pilot has accepted $1.1 million from the television entertainment industry, $721,000 from insurance companies, $675,000 from telephone utilities and $530,000 from the air transport industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit group that tracks campaign contributions. All those industries fall under the jurisdiction of the Commerce Committee.

“We’re not saying that money will buy votes,” said Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for Common Cause, a campaign finance reform group. “But what it does buy you is influence and access to that powerful lawmaker. It gets the phone calls returned; it gets the lunches together — stuff the general public doesn’t have access to.”

McCain said yesterday that he meets with hundreds of lobbyists — that it’s his job to do it. “The question is,” he asked, “do they have excess or unwarranted influence?” He said they don’t.

None of this makes McCain unique. On the contrary, it simply means he plays a similar game — and suffers the same pressures — as his colleagues. What sets McCain apart, however, is his reputation for being uniquely immune to those pressures.

“The vulnerability for McCain on this,” the Center For Responsive Politics spokesman Massie Ritsch said in an e-mail, “is that ethics and reducing special influence on government has been a signature issue of his — and one on which he deserves credit for speaking out and making considerable progress. So anytime there’s a question about his own resistance to special influence, it’s going to sting him more — even if there’s nothing that unusual there.”

Craig Holman, the campaign finance lobbyist at Public Citizen, said the amount of money swirling around Washington is not the concern — it’s the tacit quid pro quo expected from campaign donors. “The people who provide the money want something in return,” he said. “If formal actions are being exchanged for fund-raising, that’s the real danger.”

Selling himself as above the fray remains vital for McCain, the likely GOP presidential nominee, who was tainted as part of the Keating Five in the 1980s. He was one of five senators associated with Charles Keating, the chairman of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Assn., which collapsed under a veil of corruption in the biggest S&L failure of the time. In the wake of that scandal, McCain has pushed hard for earmark reform, lobbying transparency and campaign finance reform — all of which have made him a pariah at times among Republicans. Of particular concern to many lawmakers of both parties, he pushed through the McCain-Feingold Act in 2002, which prohibits corporations from making unlimited donations to candidates.

For such reform-minded policymakers, advocates say, dubious ties to business interests could be a damning revelation.

“The public understands that when candidates take large amounts of special interest money, they respond to their donors, not to the voters,” Goldberg said in an e-mail. “But the public is still hoping that elected officials who claim that they will change the system really mean it.” This week’s whiff of scandal provides some evidence that the campaign finance system is so inherently broken that even those who dedicate their careers to reform can be swept up in the process.

While McCain has toned down his ethics reform message in recent months — if only because certain aspects confront the conservative notion of free speech and others alienate some of the GOP base — it remains an issue on the campaign trail. “Most people believe that elected leaders are more interested in the perks and privileges of office than in public service,” McCain’s campaign Web site reads, “and that too often the special interest lobbyists with the fattest wallets and best access carry the day when issues of public policy are being decided … [I have] fought the ‘revolving door’ by which lawmakers and other influential officials leave their posts and become lobbyists for the special interests they have aided.”

Still, that hasn’t prevented the Arizonan from scooping up a number of former lobbyists to outfit his campaign staff. As the Washington Post pointed out today, McCain’s team is stocked full of figures who once lobbied for industries within jurisdiction of the Commerce Committee. His campaign manager Rick Davis, for example, represented several communications giants with business before the committee. Davis is also part owner of 3eDC, an Internet consulting firm, which billed the campaign for more than $1 million in Web services in the first six months of 2007 alone, according to reports.

Advocates pushing for change say that journalists could do a better job examining the influence of money on politics. “The media is hugely complicit,” NYU’s Goldberg said. “The public only hears about the scandals … They don’t hear about the solutions.”

Hoping to alter the system, campaign finance watchdogs say the best first step would be to adopt public financing of federal elections — something that was in place for much of the last three decades but has fallen out of favor among candidates able to collect astronomical sums in recent campaigns. They shouldn’t hold their breath: Candidates in the 2008 presidential race are expected to raise roughly $1 billion by the end of the campaign cycle. With so much at stake, politicians will be reluctant to give up their right to raise whatever they’re able.

In an ironic twist, McCain, a public-financing advocate, received word from the Federal Election Commission this week that he may be forced to stick with the program — which he opted into last year — through the remainder of the primary. As the GOP front-runner, McCain is now raising far more cash than he was when he signed up. Now he wants to withdraw. But the FEC on Thursday said it can’t approve his withdrawal until the six-member commission — currently seating only two members — has a 4-member quorum. The issue of choosing new members has been stalled in Congress, where Republicans want to vote on the four new commissioners as a group, while Democrats want to vote on them individually.

That issue of FEC commissioners may be partisan, but money’s influence in Washington has no political affinity, reform advocates contend. Whichever party controls the committees and the White House is equally susceptible to the corruption that often follows. “The money goes to where the power is,” said Boyle of Common Cause. “That’s the bottom line.”

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