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McCain's Impact On Campaign Finance


Senator John McCain, who died of brain cancer yesterday, served on Capitol Hill for 34 years. Starting in the 1990s, he waged a high-profile campaign to control unregulated money in politics. It culminated in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, better known as McCain-Feingold. NPR's Peter Overby has more.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: In the summer of 1999, John McCain was running for president. What he said at a campaign stop in New Hampshire sounds familiar today.


JOHN MCCAIN: You know, it's - there's a little game they got in Washington, and that is look at the tax bill when it comes out to figure out who's getting the benefit because of the very complex and convoluted way that they write the tax laws. And it's a disgrace.

OVERBY: He was talking about the corrupting effect of money in politics. That message resonated with New Hampshire voters like Brenda Jameson (ph).


BRENDA JAMESON: I'm excited to find somebody who's willing to say what needs to be said instead of just saying what people maybe want to hear, especially the people with the money.

OVERBY: McCain lost the nomination to George W. Bush, but he continued the campaign finance battle in the Senate. He might have seemed an unlikely crusader. In 1989, McCain was one of five senators investigated by the Senate Ethics Committee. They had met with federal regulators on behalf of a big donor, Charles Keating. The Ethics Committee wanted to know if they had pressured the regulators to go easy on Keating. Chairman Warren Rudman announced the panel's finding.


WARREN RUDMAN: The committee concludes that Senator McCain exercised poor judgment in intervening with the regulators.

OVERBY: McCain was never eager to talk about the scandal, but he did draw a direct line from it to the loopholes in the campaign finance laws. Sitting in his campaign van in 1999, he put it this way.


MCCAIN: I could argue with you until I'm blue in the face that I did nothing wrong in the Keating affair, which might be technically true. But I know that I did wrong by attending that meeting.

OVERBY: McCain enlisted allies to his cause.

RUSSELL FEINGOLD: He just called me up out of the blue.

OVERBY: Russell Feingold was new to Washington, a freshman Democratic senator.

FEINGOLD: He said, you seem to have a good record. Would you like to work with me? And I said yes. So I never knew exactly why he chose that moment to do it, but he did.

OVERBY: They co-sponsored the McCain-Feingold bill and built alliances with advocacy groups. One of them was Common Cause. Its president was Fred Wertheimer.

FRED WERTHEIMER: I was the person who wrote the letter to the Senate Ethics Committee that triggered the Keating Five investigation.

OVERBY: Wertheimer says he and McCain never discussed that. They worked alongside many others on what McCain-Feingold would do and how they might outmaneuver Senate Republican leaders who wanted to sink it.

WERTHEIMER: He was simply fearless. Nothing really fazed him.

OVERBY: That Senate debate seems quaint today. It ran more than two weeks. Forty amendments were offered, which isn't to say it was polite. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell led the opposition.


MITCH MCCONNELL: I hope senators will uphold the oaths they've taken and oppose this unconstitutional bill.

OVERBY: But the McCain-Feingold bill became law. Party committees had to stop raising so-called soft money - unregulated funds from big donors. Tax exempt groups had to start disclosing the money behind some of their TV ads. It turned out to be a high watermark for campaign finance regulation. Since then, the Supreme Court has handed down decisions, including Citizens United, that opened new channels for unlimited and sometimes secret money. McCain reflected on it all in 2014 at Harvard's Institute of Politics.


MCCAIN: We go through it historically - reform corruption, reform corruption. Right now, we're at - in my view, we're at the height of corruption, thanks to the United States Supreme Court.

OVERBY: McCain turned his focus back to other issues, notably national security, immigration and healthcare. He ran for president again and lost. This past October, he returned to campaign finance. He co-sponsored a bill to stop anonymous political ads online. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.