McCain’s Reforms Run Afoul of Lott

Whenever Arizona Senator John McCain discusses the corruption

of Congress by corporate money, he correctly takes care to criticize both

parties. But as the Senate debates proposals for reform, it should be clear

that the Senator’s main antagonist is and always has been his fellow

Republican, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. He is an

exceptionally well-developed example of the self-serving “money politician.”

Wisely, Mr. McCain tries to avoid public feuding. Yet every

time he has strayed from his party’s line over the past several years-on issues

ranging from tobacco control to a patient’s bill of rights to wasteful defense

spending-he has been confronted by Mr. Lott, faithful protector of corporate

special interests.

Although the majority leader rarely suffers the kind of

negative ink he’s earned, everyone in Washington understands how his fidelity

is regularly repaid with millions of dollars in soft-money contributions to

various G.O.P. committees, including his own. The way such special interests

influence Mr. Lott was illustrated not long ago by an expensive but

little-noticed skirmish between him and Mr. McCain.

The question was whether

Congress would prevent the Federal Communications Commission from repossessing

cellular licenses held by NextWave Telecom Inc. Having won the valuable

licenses in a 1995 F.C.C. auction, NextWave went bankrupt before paying $4.7

billion it owed the government.

But when federal regulators moved to take the licenses back,

the Hawthorne, N.Y.–based company filed a lawsuit to stop the agency, arguing

that its rights were being violated. In December 1999, an investor group led by

communications giant Global Crossing Inc. put up almost $2 billion in new

financing, hoping to grab the ailing company’s wide swaths of wireless

spectrum, which had increased in value exponentially.

NextWave and Global Crossing quickly mounted an ambitious

lobbying effort against the F.C.C. They engaged the services of Barbour,

Griffith & Rogers, the hot lobbying boutique set up by Mr. Lott’s old

Mississippi pal and former Republican chairman, Haley Barbour. The Barbour firm

also includes a Lott classmate from Ole Miss who formerly served as executive

director of the New Republican Majority Fund, Mr. Lott’s personal political

action committee.

On a single day last August, Global Crossing officials gave

the Lott P.A.C. a total of $45,000-just a fraction of the million dollars or so

in soft money doled out to both parties by Global Crossing during the 10 months

that followed its investment in NextWave.

Global Crossing’s campaign faced opposition from Mr. McCain,

chairman of the Commerce Committee. The Arizona maverick, who publicly

denounced the bill delaying a new spectrum auction as a “rip-off” of taxpayers,

believed he could kill the bill in his committee.

In late October, however, Mr. Lott abruptly indicated that

he would attach the NextWave bailout as an appropriations “rider,” bypassing

committee approval and floor debate.

Outraged by this

maneuver, Mr. McCain shot off a letter to Senate leaders that he also released

to the press. He accused the leadership of maneuvering to “subvert the regular

legislative order and obscure from the American people special interest-driven

legislative riders and pork barrel spending.” The majority leader quietly

backed down, leaving his patrons at Global Crossing feeling double-crossed.

“We were talking about as much as a $10 billion difference

to the American taxpayers, whether [the cellular licenses] would be given back

to NextWave or went on the auction [block],” Mr. McCain told me several weeks

after that incident. “We fought tooth and nail to prevent the fix being put

in.”

Usually the fix goes in, of course, and Mr. McCain can’t do

much about it. His thumbnail history of soft money indirectly indicts the

G.O.P. bosses who now run Capitol Hill.

“When I came to the House in 1983, it was not a perfect

system,” he recalled, “but the influence of the special interests was

drastically less than it is today …. As the amount of soft money has gone up

and the amounts of money in these campaigns have gone up, the more I have seen

their control increase.”

And meanwhile, Mr.

Lott-who has run the Senate like a jukebox since 1996-easily escapes the

scrutiny of media honchos who complain about money injuring democracy. They

ignore the documented reports produced by public-interest organizations about

his addiction to gambling and tobacco funds. They didn’t even cover the

detailed complaint filed against him by the nonpartisan Congressional

Accountability Project for shaking down high-tech lobbyists, or its

unceremonious burial by the Senate Ethics Committee.

It is this unaccountable

power of Mr. Lott and his corporate patrons that is threatened by the

McCain-Feingold bill. Exposing the abuse of that authority is essential to this

initial stage of true reform.