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
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
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
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.
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