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

McCain gladdened Internet providers in May when he introduced a bill to keep the Internet free of government regulation. The measure was designed to encourage companies to expand high-speed Internet networks all over the country. The regional phone companies, all of whom rank among McCain's top donors, including US West ($103,700) and Bell South ($56,000), strongly support the measure. But long-distance companies such as AT&T ($52,250) and cable television companies such as Time Warner ($12,000) are opposed.

Interests on both sides of the debate over the Satellite Home Viewers Act have contributed to McCain. Last week, McCain refused to endorse the final version of the bill, which was approved by Congress as part of the omnibus budget agreement and now goes to the president. The measure was designed to level the playing field for satellite and cable television providers. McCain says -- and consumer groups agree -- that the bill is not fair because it does not grant satellite companies authority to broadcast local programming, something cable providers can do.

Cable interests such as the National Cable Television Association have given him at least $9,394. But so have satellite companies -- the most notable is EchoStar, whose chairman, Charlie Ergen, hosted a spring fund raiser for McCain that reportedly garnered more than $40,000.

This chart reflects individual and PAC contributions of $9.8 million to John McCain's 1998 Senate and 2000 presidential campaigns. Federal rules require that campaign officials make their "best faith" effort to identify and disclose a donor's employer.
This chart reflects individual and PAC contributions of $9.8 million to John McCain's 1998 Senate and 2000 presidential campaigns. Federal rules require that campaign officials make their "best faith" effort to identify and disclose a donor's employer.
Joe Forkan

Cable companies may be unhappy with McCain's stance on the Satellite Home Viewers Act, but if they're in the market to own TV stations, they'll love a bill the senator introduced in September. The measure would allow TV station groups to buy more. Owners would be allowed to reach 50 percent of U.S. households, rather than the current 35 percent. Owners would also be allowed to own a television station and newspaper in the same market.

Consumer groups oppose the measure, saying it would further limit the number of voices in the market; non-network affiliates don't like it, either.

But mega-companies like Viacom ($55,250) and Fox Broadcasting ($19,050) stand to benefit.

McCain isn't always decisive on telecommunications issues. Sometimes, he simply sits back and waits. That's the case with the continuing debate over how to fix the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The act was supposed to lower phone rates by encouraging competition among long-distance carriers and the Baby Bells; instead, it has led to mergers among companies and resulted in higher cable and phone rates.

McCain, one of a handful to vote against the bill in 1996, has expressed concern over the ramifications of the new law -- but he hasn't suggested any legislative remedies. Instead, over the past several months he's held a series of hearings on the matter, summoning the CEOs of these communications Goliaths before him to testify.

Commerce Committee staff director Buse says McCain has been consistent on the issue.

"He's had a pretty constant mantra: 'I'll continue to hold hearings and look at how to improve the act so that American consumers get more choice.' He is very concerned over consolidation in the cable industry. He remains very concerned that the average consumer at home doesn't have lower prices on their telephone bills, on their cable bills. . . . He will continue to investigate how we can open that up."

Buse is quick to point out that McCain invites all sides to testify. Gene Kimmelman of the Consumers Union (which publishes Consumer Reports) is a frequent witness.

At a hearing this month, Kimmelman told the committee, "Consumers are getting the short end of the stick -- higher fees, higher prices. Unless you're in the high end of the market, you're a high-volume customer, then you get choices. And so, I leave it for you, Mr. Chairman, should Congress allow consumers to be ripped off in a core market that has monopoly attributes, because that monopoly says I want to go somewhere else and compete? I don't think that's fair."

Kimmelman called on McCain to revamp the law to make it more fair. Buse says there is no time frame for doing so.

Railroads

Railroads are not as high-profile as aviation or telecommunications, but they are frequently on the Senate Commerce Committee agenda -- and industry representatives have been generous to John McCain, contributing at least $97,110.

This figure does not count the flights McCain has taken on the private jets of rail corporations CSX Transportation and Union Pacific. McCain reimbursed the companies for the flights, but paid the cost of a first-class ticket on a commercial airliner -- far less than the real cost of such a ride. (Bell South has also given McCain rides on its jets.)

CSX and Union Pacific are two of the private freight companies that benefited from the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997, which included provisions that limit the liability of companies that own the tracks used by the government railroad. The bill also capped, at $200,000, the total damages that can be paid to passengers in a single train wreck.

A 1991 train wreck in Florida cost CSX $50 million in punitive damages. The company's tracks had not been properly maintained and the company had recently cut its maintenance personnel in half.

Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C., consumer group, says the bill that was ultimately passed was much less onerous than the one that made it out of McCain's committee. That bill would have, in effect, forced Amtrak (i.e., the taxpayer) to pick up the tab for damages awarded in any crash, no matter how egregious the actions of the private company. The bill also would have further limited damages an individual could claim.

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