Sen. John McCain ribbed then-Rep. Chris Shays about a nickname for the landmark campaign finance overhaul they were skippering through Congress in the early 2000s.
If the Supreme Court upheld the measure banning “soft money” corporate contributions to the political parties, then they would christen it McCain-Feingold after its chief Senate sponsors. And if the justices ruled against them, Shays recalled, McCain wanted no part.
“John said to me, ‘Chris, if the Supreme Court declares it unconstitutional, it’ll be Shays-Meehan,’” Shays said with a chuckle.
The bipartisan campaign finance overhaul survived a well-funded legal challenge in 2003 from now-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and outside interests including the National Rifle Association — only to suffer subsequent and major rollbacks in court and at the Federal Election Commission.
While the long effort to enact the law made McCain a pariah in some GOP circles, it remains a significant legacy of the self-declared maverick lawmaker and 2008 Republican presidential nominee, who died of brain cancer.
“John had his moments of real brilliance,” recalled Shays, a Connecticut Republican who lost re-election in 2008 after 11 terms in the House. “He was like no one else.”
It’s a sentiment shared by former Sen. Russell D. Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who is the other namesake of the campaign finance law.
“Obviously, John was one of the most important influences I’ve had on my life, and working with him on these and other reform issues was really the reason I wanted to be in the Senate,” said Feingold, a liberal who lost his re-election bid in 2010. “We were determined to get this done. People were very skeptical.”
The Senate’s political odd couple began pushing for the overhaul in 1995, after previously working on a bill to update congressional lobbying disclosures and revolving-door rules. McCain’s interest in good-government matters stemmed in part from his involvement in the 1989 political scandal known as the Keating Five.
The Arizona Republican was one of five lawmakers accused of violating ethics rules in 1989 by urging regulators to back off an investigation into political donor Charles H. Keating Jr.’s savings-and-loan bank. The Senate Ethics Committee did not recommend a formal reprimand of McCain, but found that he had demonstrated “poor judgment.”
“It tarnished him unfairly, and gave him added impetus to really kind of clean up the place,” Shays said.
McCain made unexpected, if not permanent, allies in liberal organizations, but drew widespread criticism from many in his own party. It helped him polish his ethics image after the Keating Five scandal, but it also cost him.
For one, when McCain ran for president in 2008, he pledged to take public matching funds and the resulting limits on his coffers, while his opponent, Barack Obama, did not. McCain raised about $368 million to Obama’s $744 million, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
“When McCain decided to run for president, he really thought that this work on political reform would really benefit him,” said Meredith McGehee, a longtime campaign finance overhaul advocate, who is now executive director of Issue One.
He also expected members of the campaign finance community to criticize Obama for opting out of the public financing system. They did not.
“Not only did he not get the bang for his buck on his record of reform, but the reform community had let him down,” added McGehee, who said she recused herself from discussing the matter publicly at the time because her then-boss, Trevor Potter, served as the McCain campaign’s general counsel.
Before that, when they were pushing the bill, Feingold says both senators felt ostracized at times. Many of their fellow senators warned they would hurt their respective parties’ ability to raise money.
“We had a joke that when we’d go to our party lunches, nobody would sit with us,” Feingold said. “We joked we should have our own little Tuesday lunches.”
The overhaul passed in 2002, and Republican President George W. Bush signed it into law. In addition to banning large corporate donations to the party committees, the law also required candidates to say they approved their campaign ads.
“We began our fight because it had become clear to us that our campaign finance system was broken, and this breakdown was having a detrimental effect on our democracy,” McCain said in 2004 on the Senate floor. He summarized the effort as “seven years, four Congresses, several rewrites, countless hours of debate, amendments and much hard work by dedicated grass-roots activists.”
The sting of defeat for the law’s opponents did not wear off, even after a controversial 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC killed a piece of McCain-Feingold that required corporations and unions to pay for electioneering communications only with political action committee funds and not money from their general treasuries. Citizens United also paved the way for a new avenue for unrestricted sums of corporate money to enter the political fray through super PACs.
McCain-Feingold critics, such as McConnell, blame the law for weakening the national party committees and leaving them vulnerable now to super PACs.
“The worst day of my political life was when President George W. Bush signed McCain-Feingold into law in the early part of his first administration,” McConnell told a group of conservative donors in 2014, according to a recording obtained by The Nation magazine.
McConnell acknowledged the fight over campaign finance in a statement about his May 13 visit with McCain at the Arizonan’s retreat in Cornville, near Sedona. “For 10 years we had very vigorous debates about an issue he and I both cared about and we were on opposite sides,” the GOP leader said. “It ended going all the way up to the Supreme Court. He won and I lost, and we worked hard to establish a new relationship after that vigorous battle of the decade.”
Shays, a moderate Republican, says he and McCain were pushing a policy that didn’t have the support of their party, especially their leadership. The House Democratic champion was Rep. Martin T. Meehan of Massachusetts, who resigned from Congress in 2007 to become an administrator in the University of Massachusetts system.
McCain was their captain.
“John was fun. There was just no bullshit,” Shays said.
Even though the courts and FEC have chipped away at McCain-Feingold, lawmakers still are prohibited from seeking unlimited sums from corporations. Super PACs are not allowed to coordinate with candidates. Shays says that matters.
He recalled that after he was first elected in 1986, party leaders urged him to call Pepsi and ask for $10,000. By the early 2000s, that figure had gone up to $250,000, he said.
McGehee says it irks her when people blame McCain-Feingold for weakening the parties. She says that’s a result of Citizens United.
But Cleta Mitchell, a GOP campaign finance lawyer who represented the NRA in the 2003 Supreme Court case, credits what she calls McCain-Feingold’s regulatory “overreach” with opening up new routes for political spending.
One of the final bills McCain co-sponsored before his death, the only Senate Republican to do so, was a measure that would require new disclosures for online political advertisements. Though the courts and FEC have rolled back many political money regulations in recent years, some such as Shays believe that the investigation into foreign interference in the 2016 elections may swing the pendulum back toward McCain’s view.
“It’s sad for me,” Shays said. “My prayer was that John would see that day.”