It’s delicious. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, media darling, reputed maverick and co-author of the restrictive McCain-Feingold campaign “reform” law that was supposed to make political campaigns free of “dirty” money, seems to have been caught with his hand in a corporate cookie jar.
Seems Cablevision Systems Corp., the country’s eighth-largest cable company, wants to change its pricing to an “a la carte” system, whereby customers could pick the channels they want one by one rather than taking the packages most cable systems offer.
Sen. McCain has arranged for Cablevision’s CEO to testify before his Commerce Committee, written a letter of support to the Federal Communications Commission and lobbied other cable companies to support the pricing system.
The complication? Cablevision has given $200,000, in two separate donations notably close in time to Sen. McCain’s lobbying activities, to The Reform Institute, a tax-exempt group formed after the senator’s unsuccessful 2000 presidential bid. The group touts the senator’s views, showcases him at public events, and pays $110,000 a year to his chief political adviser, Rick Davis, who ran his 2000 campaign.
Sen. McCain says there’s no problem here since the institute isn’t a campaign committee or political action committee, and the donations are legal. But that’s more than a little disingenuous. The Reform Institute is part of his political machine. The Cablevision donation shows there is more than one way for corporate interests to reward politicians who carry water for them — just one reason McCain-Feingold is pernicious and ineffective.
The real scandal here, however, has to do with the intrusive, unnecessary and ultimately corrupting role of the federal government in regulating cable TV. In a sensible world, if Cablevision wanted to do a la carte pricing, it would just be able to try it and see how consumers respond, not have to ask permission from the FCC. The very fact that the federal government has that kind of power reduces the efficiency of the marketplace and invites corrupt — or corrupt-appearing — political-economic transactions of the sort that make Sen. McCain look so hypocritical.
As we have said repeatedly, the real way to get dirty money out of politics is to reduce the power of the government to make or break the fortunes of companies in the private marketplace. It’s curiously appropriate that this reputed reformer has provided the latest illustration of this principle.