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An Endowed Chair

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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.

McCain abstained on the committee vote that sent the bill to the Senate floor. As committee chairman, he could have held the bill and let it die. He voted for the final version that became law.



Y2K

Most experts agree that the Y2K scare is just that -- a scare. But high-tech special interests took no chances. They asked the Senate Commerce Committee and John McCain to protect them from liability in the event of product failure. The Y2K Dispute Resolution Bill addresses almost any catastrophe related to a Y2K computer crash.

Tom Bantle of CongressWatch, a Ralph Nader creation, calls the bill anti-consumer and says it benefits hardware and software manufacturers.

"It's particularly unusual," Bantle says of the bill, "because the Y2K defect was created by the computer companies -- in order to save themselves computer space and therefore money -- knowing that in the year 2000 it would be a problem. And while they've created it themselves, they came to Congress to say, 'Well, we created it, but you should now protect us from our own decision to put this defect into our products by making it harder for people who are hurt by it to get compensation.'"

Even though Y2K will likely be a "non-event," Bantle worries that industry will use the legislative victory as a steppingstone toward additional liability exemptions. Already, he says, the computer industry is citing the bill "as an example of the types of things that we should do more often, so in that sense it's a very bad precedent."

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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.