John McCain devoted much of his career in the Senate to controlling the influence of money in public life — in part to try to recover from his own role in a big congressional influence scandal. McCain, who died Saturday of brain cancer, made money and influence big themes of his first presidential race. “Y’know, there’s a little game they got in Washington,” he told a crowd in New Hampshire in 1999. “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.” Although McCain, an Arizona Republican, lost the Republican nomination to George W. Bush, his warnings that money was corrupting politics reverberated in many state primaries, amplifying his message and propelling him toward an unexpected legislative triumph in the Senate that helped define his career. … McCain, who served more than 30 years in the Senate, began as an unlikely crusader.
In 1989, he was one of a group of lawmakers investigated by the Senate ethics committee. The “Keating Five,” as they were known, had met with federal regulators on behalf of a big donor, businessman Charles Keating. The ethics committee wanted to know whether they had pressured government finance officials to go easy on Keating. The investigation concluded “that Senator McCain exercised poor judgment in intervening with the regulators.”
… “He just called me up out of the blue,” said Russell Feingold, new to Washington as a freshman Democratic senator from Wisconsin. “He said, ‘You seem to have a good record. Would you like to work with me?’ And I said ‘yeah.’ So I never knew exactly why he chose that moment to do it, but he did.”
They co-sponsored a bill that became known as McCain-Feingold and built alliances with advocacy groups. One ally was the watchdog group Common Cause. That brought more than a touch of irony, as its then-president, Fred Wertheimer, told NPR: “I was the person who wrote the letter to the Senate Ethics Committee that triggered the Keating Five investigation.”