On Lou Dobbs, CNN commentators cited McCain's “years of work” on reform, but ignored relevant facts

On Lou Dobbs Tonight, CNN's Ed Henry and Bill Schneider reported on the dispute over lobbying reform between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama -- uncritically touting McCain's “years of work” on lobbying reform. However, in doing so, they both ignored a number of relevant facts.

On the February 7 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, congressional correspondent Ed Henry and senior political analyst Bill Schneider reported on the dispute over lobbying reform between Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) -- uncritically touting McCain's “years of work” on lobbying reform. Apparently purporting to read between the lines of a letter from McCain to Obama, Schneider said: “Who is this freshman pipsqueak to challenge McCain's years of work on his signature issue?” In a separate report, Henry stated: “McCain, who's long pushed reform, didn't take kindly to the lecture from a freshman [Obama].” Henry then played an audio clip of Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report, who asserted that the dispute could allow McCain to “reassert his ownership of the ethics issue.”

McCain does indeed have a history of pushing for lobbying related reforms in the Senate, but he also has a different history that was not mentioned by the CNN commentators, aspects of which would presumably be of interest to viewers considering Schneider, Henry, and Rothenberg's seemingly unanimous view of McCain's “ownership of the ethics issue.”

McCain, who chairs the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and has led its investigation into some of former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff's activities, is perhaps best known for his sponsorship of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (often called McCain-Feingold) that banned “soft money” contributions to national political parties. In 1995, McCain sponsored a successful effort to amend Senate rules to bar senators from accepting gifts over $50 or privately funded travel to “recreational” events. McCain co-sponsored 1995 legislation to toughen disclosure requirements for congressional lobbyists. In 1996, McCain -- along with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) -- tried unsuccessfully to lengthen the one-year time period during which former congressional staffers are prohibited from lobbying their former bosses and committees, and former members of Congress are prohibited from lobbying their colleagues. A September 5, 1996, article in Roll Call quoted McCain as saying the bill would “stop the revolving door and restrict former staff and Members from lobbying the Hill until after a decent cooling-off period elapses.”

But McCain's career also includes a number of activities rarely mentioned by those touting McCain's reformer credentials.

McCain steered his Abramoff investigation away from fellow lawmakers

As Media Matters for America noted -- and, earlier, blogger Joshua Micah Marshall had noted -- McCain's own Senate investigation into Abramoff's activities avoided any examination into the possible culpability of his fellow lawmakers. According to an article (subscription required) in the March 10, 2005, issue of Roll Call, McCain “assured his colleagues that his expanding investigation into the activities of a former GOP lobbyist [Abramoff] and a half-dozen of his tribal casino clients is not directed at revealing ethically questionable actions by Members of Congress.” According to Roll Call:

McCain's comments to Republicans, made at the weekly lunch of the GOP's Steering Committee, came on the same day a trio of stories landed in Washington newspapers raising questions about the legislative actions taken by two GOP Senators and political donations to an interest group established in 1997 by Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

Because of those stories - and several other news reports touching on Abramoff's relationship with Members - McCain said he wanted to let Senators know that he was not trying to air any of their dirty laundry.


His disclaimer came as two Senators involved in the latest round of Abramoff stories, Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and David Vitter (R-La.), said they welcomed any investigation and promised to help McCain in any way.

In addition, the Center for Responsive Politics has documented that McCain received $5,000 in campaign contributions from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians while Abramoff was the group's lobbyist. Although such contributions do not in themselves constitute wrongdoing, Media Matters has noted that Henry has previously highlighted tribal contributions made to Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, while ignoring those made to McCain.

Senate Ethics Committee found McCain “exercised poor judgment” in Keating Five scandal

In 1990 and 1991, the Senate Ethics Committee investigated allegations that McCain -- along with four Democratic senators, together called the Keating Five -- had exerted improper influence when he met with federal bank regulators on behalf of developer Charles H. Keating Jr., a McCain campaign donor and the central figure in a $2 billion savings and loan failure. The committee ultimately exonerated McCain but found that he had “exercised poor judgment” in the scandal. As The New York Times explained in a November 21, 1999, article:

Senator McCain had taken $112,000 in Keating-related campaign donations, trips aboard Mr. Keating's corporate jet and family vacations at the executive's Bahamas hideaway. While legal, these gifts made his attendance at the meetings with federal regulators all the more questionable. (The other four senators had also taken large contributions from Mr. Keating, some of them far more than Mr. McCain.)

McCain's presidential campaign relied on lobbyist connections

During his campaign for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, McCain relied heavily on the fundraising efforts of lobbyists connected with industries that McCain oversaw as chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. On February 4, 2000, The Wall Street Journal reported that “the McCain campaign is crawling with lobbyists ... raising money for Mr. McCain's campaign, helping him formulate policies and representing well-heeled clients in Washington.” The Journal added: “Of every $10 the McCain campaign raised last year, $1 came from the Washington area or from political action committees, a bigger ratio than that at the Bush, Gore or Bradley campaigns.”

Though an April 28, 1999, Washington Post article noted that “McCain said in an interview ... that his public identification with the cause of campaign finance reform poses no conflict with the fund-raising assets of his chairmanship,” the Post suggested that lobbyists saw no downside to supporting his presidential campaign: either McCain won, in which case he would be grateful for their support, or he continued as commerce committee chair, in which case he would be grateful for their support.

From the Post article:

To McCain's lobbyist backers, however, his chairmanship is the key to his appeal here under what one called “the Wilbur Mills rule” of presidential campaign giving.

Mills, the Ways and Means Committee chairman best known for his Tidal Basin dip with a stripper, waged a short-lived 1972 presidential campaign underwritten by lobbyists with business before him. Now, he's become Washington shorthand for the practice whereby “the highest-ranking member of Congress” running for president benefits -- whether front-runner, like Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) four years ago, or long shot, like McCain today.

“People like to give under the theory that no matter what happens, he's still chairman of the Commerce Committee,” said J. Steven Hart, whose firm Williams & Jensen has represented clients such as Time Warner Inc. and Continental Airlines with interests before McCain's panel.

The Post article also described a $120,000 McCain fundraiser hosted by a number of industry lobbyists, including McCain's former legislative director, John W. Timmons:

Hart was one of more than a dozen Republican lobbyists who lent their names for a March 23 [1999] McCain fund-raiser at the downtown restaurant Red Sage. A dinner for the “host committee” followed the reception; the sea bass drew raves. Despite leaving early for a television appearance, McCain “talked to everybody and worked the room,” said Mary E. McAuliffe, a former Commerce aide who is now head of Union Pacific's Washington office.


Among the lobbyist-hosts listed on the invitation was perhaps McCain's most prominent D.C. backer, former Reagan White House chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein, whose firm represents such Commerce-regulated businesses as United Airlines, Time Warner, Comsat, CSX and the National Cable Television Association.

Others hosting the event included John W. Timmons, McCain's former legislative director, now lobbying for Arizona-based America West Airlines; ex-representative Vin Weber (R-Minn.), a House GOP leadership insider who lobbies for Microsoft and other big-name clients; and Will Ball, president of the National Soft Drink Association. Former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour, now a major lobbyist, serves on Bush's exploratory committee but gave $1,000 to McCain as well.

In addition, the Post reported on a later fundraiser to be hosted by the business partner of McCain's campaign manager, also a telecommunications lobbyist:

Lobbyist Timothy P. McKone will host another McCain Washington fund-raiser, a May 11 dinner at the steakhouse Morton's of Chicago. A partner of McCain campaign manager Rick Davis, whose firm emphasizes telecommunications lobbying, McKone said the invitees are a cross-section of K Street.

The guest list “is not industry-specific,” he said. “I've got a whole mix -- health care, banking, insurance. You name it.” Response for the $500-a-person, $1,000-a-PAC event has been good, he said. “It's probably hard to find somebody in Washington who hasn't worked closely with McCain.”

McCain received significant contributions from the telecommunications industry. According to the Post, “PACs that have given McCain the maximum $5,000 are tilted toward those run by Commerce-interested businesses -- transportation interests such as Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Federal Express, telecommunications companies such as Bell Atlantic, BellSouth and GTE, and casinos such as Mirage Resorts.”

McCain used corporate jets while serving as Commerce chair

The February 7, 2000, edition of CNN's Inside Politics featured a report in which correspondent Bob Franken noted then-Gov. George W. Bush's charge that, in Franken's words, “McCain has a double standard, talking campaign finance reform, for instance, while accepting private jet transportation from corporations who do business before his Commerce Committee.” McCain acknowledged using the jets, telling CNN: “We had almost no money when we were using the corporate jets. I could not get around from one place to another and meet my campaign schedule without it. Now we have a lot of money, thanks to the Internet and our successes, and we're able to charter a jet.”

On the February 15, 2000, broadcast of CBS Evening News, anchor Dan Rather reported that according to Federal Election Commission records, McCain had accepted “35 flights from 13 companies.” (Rather noted that despite Bush's criticism of McCain, Bush had accepted “79 flights on jets from 35 companies.”)

McCain's staff has made use of “revolving door”

As noted in the April 28, 1999, Washington Post article, Timmons -- who served as McCain's legislative director and senior counsel to the Commerce Committee in the 1980s -- was working as a lobbyist for America West Airlines when he co-hosted a 1999 McCain fundraiser. According to a December 27, 1990, Business Wire article, Timmons was elected by the airline's board of directors to serve in “the newly created position of vice president of government affairs” and would be “responsible for establishing a Washington office and representing America West in the nation's capitol.”

According to The Center for Public Integrity, by the end of 1999, Timmons had become a “top lobbyist” for AT&T -- a company whose interests were deeply tied to McCain's Commerce Committee work.

Similarly, a June 6, 2002, Washington Post article noted that "[i]n one of the neater recent revolving-door moves, Sonya D. Sotak left the office of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), where she was his legislative assistant for health care issues, to become a lobbyist for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America."

From the February 7 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight:

HENRY: John McCain was furious that after privately agreeing they'd work on a bipartisan ethics proposal, Barack Obama went public with a letter suggesting McCain was slow-walking it. McCain, who's long pushed reform, didn't take kindly to the lecture from a freshman.

In a letter to Obama, he accused him of “self-interested partisan posturing,” “disingenuousness,” and noted sarcastically, “I concluded your professed concern for the institution and the public interest was genuine and admirable. Thank you for disabusing me of such notions.” Obama insisted he was puzzled by McCain's reaction. “The fact that you have now questioned my sincerity and my desire to put aside politics for the public interest is regrettable but does not in any way diminish my deep respect for you nor my willingness to find a bipartisan solution to this problem.”

Political analysts say this is a twofer for McCain as he ponders another presidential run.

ROTHENBERG: He could reassert his ownership of the ethics issue, and, at the same time, score some points with Republicans by taking on Barack Obama, the golden boy of the Democratic Party.


SCHNEIDER: McCain felt betrayed. He fired a letter back at Obama.

McCAIN: Senator Obama said that he would work with us and then decided not to.

SCHNEIDER: It was the tone of McCain's letter that raised eyebrows. He accused Obama of “self-interested partisan posturing.”

McCAIN: Straight talk. People don't like straight talk.

SCHNEIDER: Who is this freshman pipsqueak to challenge McCain's years of work on his signature issue? Maybe Democrats don't like the idea of a bipartisan taskforce because they want to use the issue to bash Republicans.

Obama professed to be puzzled by McCain's response. He said he always believed the Democratic bill should be the basis for a bipartisan solution. In other words, put down your saber.