An Endowed Chair

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If these findings raise concerns about influence peddling, none of those concerns would be addressed by McCain's campaign-reform platform, which is narrow in scope. He wants to ban "soft money," the hundreds of thousands of dollars that large corporations and other special interests pour into political party coffers each campaign cycle. Once the parties have the soft money in hand, they spend it on "independent," third-party ads that buttress party favorites in hotly contested races.

A soft money ban would be a good start toward reforming the campaign-finance system, but it would by no means stop the influence of special interests. Charles Keating did not become famous donating soft money to political parties; instead, he and his employees wrote stacks of individual checks for $250 or $500 or $1,000.

So do employees for the airlines, railroads and phone companies under the purview of Commerce Committee Chairman McCain.

"Hard money" donations made directly to candidates are limited to $2,000 per individual, per election cycle ($1,000 for the primary, $1,000 for the general) and $10,000 ($5,000 primary, $5,000 general) per PAC per election cycle. Corporations are prohibited from donating unlimited amounts of cash directly to a campaign, but they can, for example, host a fund raiser for the candidate and collect dozens of checks from employees, as some McCain donors have. This is known as "bundling." Companies are not supposed to reimburse employees who contribute to the firm's favorite politicians, but there's no way to monitor whether this occurs.

The money adds up. And it's all legal. Bundling -- a term made familiar by the Keating Five scandal -- is strictly defined by the Federal Elections Commission as checks written on the same day, literally bundled together and handed over by a company employee to a campaign employee. Bundling is acceptable, FEC officials say, as long as a candidate files a letter reporting it as such.

Most campaign-finance reformers have a looser definition: Bundling should be considered money from employees/PACs of a special interest, collected during a single election cycle.

Larry Makinson of the Center for Responsive Politics says that while soft money and hard money are different, "they both have some things in common . . . the ultimate goal is influence with the politicians."

He continues, "Now, there's such a thing as a benign [bundle] and there's such a thing as a not so benign [bundle]. A bundle of, let's say, Italian voters in Manhattan or Brooklyn or something like that is one thing, and a bundle from one company that has business before your Senate committee is quite another."

Some observe that McCain is a prisoner of his war chest -- absolutely forced to clamor for money in order to be a viable candidate for the White House, where he might have a shot at making reforms stick. Others are weary of hearing him grouse about the evils of special interests as he takes their money.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has criticized McCain for complaining that others take soft money as he rakes in the hard money. And the publication Campaigns and Elections even dubbed McCain the "Political Hypocrite of 1998" because he raised almost $4.5 million while his no-name Senate opponent raised only $375,463.

In recent weeks, the national press has started to report that executives for companies like America Online, EchoStar, Union Pacific and US West -- all of whom regularly have business before his committee -- have been hosting fund raisers for McCain, blanketing him with cash.

The McCain campaign sees no duplicity. McCain has no choice but to take contributions from individuals with business before his committee, says campaign spokesman Howard Opinsky.

"About 80 percent of all business in this country is somehow or another impacted by decisions made by the Commerce Committee, so to . . . make a decision to not accept contributions from anybody who has anything to do with the Commerce Committee would mean that you would systematically make anyone who works for any corporation ineligible to give to your campaign," he says.

The distinction, Opinsky insists, is soft money vs. hard money. His boss has only complained about the former. "He's never criticized the current FEC rules and he doesn't criticize people that raise money," Opinsky says. "He's never said anything about George W. Bush or anyone else that's able to raise sums of money according to the FEC rules. That's not what's at issue. What he's trying to do is eliminate the $100,000 check. That's a huge sum of money that undoubtably has an impact on the way things work. A $1,000 contribution in the face of a $100,000 contribution is insignificant."

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.