This Bud's for John

John McCain's family

McCain won the Republican primary and coasted to victory in the 1982 general election. McCain rose to power the old-fashioned way -- by tapping into wealth, rubbing elbows with the powerful, and manipulating a fawning and gullible press. Ironically, a centerpiece in McCain's remarkable and sudden rise to national prominence is his promise of campaign-finance reform.

Yet McCain has relied heavily on the financial contributions from big corporate donors -- with the liquor and beer industry near the top of the list. McCain won -- one could say bought -- his first election to the House of Representatives in 1982 with lavish sums of Hensley beer money.

James Hensley wasn't just giving McCain money just because he was his son-in-law. In a rare 1988 interview, James Hensley gave a glimpse of his political savvy.

"The neo-prohibitionists are real active about trying to dry us up all the time," he told the Phoenix Business Journal. "They're a constant battle. They're going after us in different ways now than they did in those days, trying to ban advertising, things like that ... We're legislatively involved very heavily ... It's a way of life to protect our industry."

Since 1982, Hensley & Company employees have donated almost $200,000 to federal political candidates and campaigns.

McCain himself has received more than $60,000 from James Hensley and his employees -- and tens of thousands more from other beer-related interests.

Today, McCain is ranked the 26th wealthiest member of Congress by Roll Call magazine. There are 535 members in the House and Senate.

John McCain benefits from James Hensley's money.

James Hensley benefits from John McCain's political power.

While McCain blasts his colleagues for falling prey to the influences of campaign contributions, the senator's record reveals his quiet support for the business that launched and has helped maintain his career.

John McCain hasn't always been a champion of change. He voted against campaign finance reform repeatedly in the 1980s. Until recently, he took money from tobacco companies. He was a member of the Keating Five, senators accused of improper actions on behalf of wealthy contributor Charles H Keating and the focus of the most extensive Senate Ethics Committee hearings in 100 years.

But all of that is ancient history for much of the American electorate. Today McCain is reaping the benefits of his recent maverick act, as scores of Democrats and Independents across the country vote for him in GOP primaries.

But there is one area where it is unlikely that John McCain will ever emerge as a champion of reform: alcohol.

When he was elected to Congress, McCain swore he'd recuse himself on all votes related to the alcohol industry, given his father-in-law's and wife's business. And he has. But such votes are relatively insignificant when compared to other powers endowed on a senator -- particularly a senior senator who chairs an influential committee.

Particularly if the senator is John McCain, the committee is the powerful Senate Commerce Committee, and the issue is alcohol.

The Senate Commerce Committee has a number of alcohol-related issues in its purview, including the labeling of alcoholic beverages and the regulation of alcohol advertising. But you wouldn't know it from looking at the committee's agenda since McCain took its reins three years ago.

John McCain's influence regarding alcohol-related legislation comes from his inaction, rather than action. As a committee chairman, McCain has the unilateral power to kill a bill simply by refusing to put it on a committee agenda or schedule hearings.

And since McCain was elected chairman of the committee in January 1997, that's exactly what has happened.

George Hacker, director of the Alcohol Policies Project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says it's very hard to get alcohol-related legislation heard in Congress, and more difficult since McCain took the helm of the Senate Commerce Committee. "Having someone with no interest and who really refuses to take an interest in alcohol is a serious problem in the Commerce Committee," Hacker says.

But does mere indifference actually benefit the liquor industry?

"Well, sure," Hacker replies. "If the chairman has a problem dealing with these issues, he'll go on to something else."

In fact, three alcohol-related bills have been assigned to McCain's committee since he became chairman, and none has been taken up. All three were sponsored by Senator Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Republican. All deal with alcoholic beverage labeling and are vociferously opposed by alcohol interests.

And then there's the matter of the alcohol advertising hearings the Senate Commerce Committee was set to hold in early 1997. Scheduled in late 1996, before McCain became chairman, they were rescheduled, put off, and, in the end, never held.

Last month, Anheuser-Busch announced it would once again serve as the primary sponsor of the four official presidential debates to be held this fall -- the last one in St. Louis, the company's hometown. The cost of the St. Louis debate, $550,000, was released, but the total amount Anheuser-Busch will spend to sponsor the events was not made available.

Unless George W. Bush delivers a powerful counterpunch to McCain's swelling bandwagon, John McCain will be standing on the Republican party podium at debates paid for by the King of Beers.

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