An Endowed Chair

Senator John McCain's push for campaign-finance reform has helped make him a presidential contender. Donations from special interests that appear before his Senate Commerce Committee haven't hurt, either

Airlines

Last month, the public interest group Common Cause released a report linking Congress' decision to gut the so-called Airline Passenger Bill of Rights with soft-money campaign contributions from major airlines.

"The reason for this timidity in Washington?" the report asked. "Because when it comes to influencing Congress with campaign cash, the airlines are always on time. At the same time the airline industry has vigorously fought recent congressional efforts to establish airline passenger rights, its political giving has taken off."

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Common Cause's study revealed that during the first six months of 1999, airlines contributed almost $1 million in soft money to political parties.

No mention is made in the report of the man largely responsible for gutting the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, whose panel oversees the Federal Aviation Administration.

That is because McCain does not accept soft money. But McCain does take hard money, and the airlines are on time with that, too. New Times' analysis reveals that McCain has received at least $83,900 from major airline employees and their PACs. Add in all aviation-related industry and the number jumps to at least $182,000.

Did money buy influence in this case?

Paul Hudson, of the Aviation Consumer Action Project in Washington, D.C., says his group and other consumer advocates -- who are not among McCain's donors -- were not invited to the negotiations that led to the compromise between Congress and the airlines. Instead, Hudson watched, incredulous, as McCain announced the decision in June at a joint press conference with airline industry officials.

Hudson calls the deal a "giveaway," and says that the legislation -- which he says would have addressed perhaps 10 percent of the complaints airline customers commonly lodge -- was gutted and replaced with a study committee.

Mark Buse, staff director of the Senate Commerce Committee, sees the matter differently.

"Senator McCain has from the very beginning stated that he thinks it's better for industry to voluntarily do these sorts of plans . . . as opposed to government-imposed mandates. But if they don't do it, then he is prepared to pass out a bill," Buse says.

Of course, if and when that happens, McCain will probably not be raising money for a presidential bid.

McCain has been unabashed in his attempts to win a much-sought-after prize for America West Airlines, which is headquartered in Arizona. For years, McCain has fought to increase the number of slots at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. -- a move that would all but guarantee America West the opportunity to fly nonstop from Phoenix, instead of stopping in the Midwest. District interests strongly opposed the move, and the argument became so heated that McCain had to vow he would never personally take one of the nonstop flights.

Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University, says he doesn't care if there are more slots at National Airport. His real concern is that McCain's push on behalf of America West held up legislation that Jenkins believes is infinitely more important.

"What is really kind of irritating . . . is the fact that for two years now, the current Congress has not reauthorized FAA. They've let regional, parochial issues like this hold up important issues like improving air-traffic control, which is of concern to an awful lot of people. It's to the point now where our air-traffic system is so outdated, so overpumped that in a couple years it could become a safety issue. So I wish these people would get off these things and get onto some real, serious aviation issues, and I don't see that happening."

McCain "has to take responsibility," Jenkins says. "He's head of the Senate committee that oversees these things."

America West Airlines has donated at least $11,500 to McCain. John Timmons, a former McCain staffer and current lobbyist for America West, has donated $2,000. His firm, Higgins, McGovern and Smith, has donated another $3,000.

McCain successfully bargained to get 24 slots for National Airport, but the deal is on hold because the FAA authorization bill was not passed before November 19, when Congress adjourned.

Telecommunications

Of the many industries impacted by the Senate Commerce Committee, the most prominent is telecommunications. It is also the most lucrative for McCain, who has raked in at least $1 million from people and PACs in the industry.

The issues vary and the players change sides from issue to issue, so it is tough to pin a particular campaign contribution on a particular vote.

But two things are clear:

Just about all the major players in the telecom industry donate big bucks to McCain, and his actions -- big and small -- on the Senate Commerce Committee have the ability to make or break their businesses.

Microsoft is one of McCain's biggest donors, having given at least $32,250.

It's the Senate Judiciary Committee, not Commerce, that has jurisdiction over antitrust issues like the one Microsoft is embroiled in, yet McCain made noise last year about convening related hearings before his committee. At about the same time, Microsoft hosted a fund raiser for him in Seattle.

And many Commerce Committee actions do affect Microsoft. The company has interests in phone and satellite companies, and McCain has jurisdiction over Internet legislation affecting privacy. He has supported legislation that requires schools and libraries to use filters to limit kids' access to pornography. Internet taxation is fodder for Commerce, too, and McCain sponsored the Internet Tax Freedom Act, now law, which prohibits states and local jurisdictions from taxing Internet activities. That legislation was celebrated by Microsoft and other Internet-related companies.

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