Those who wonder about the influence of foreign governments and other entities in the U.S. Congress need look no further than Senator John McCain, the son of an admiral who was shot down by the North Vietnamese during the war in Indochina and spent years of confinement and torture in what came to be known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” McCain was defeated by Barack Obama in 2008, but has kept his hand firmly on the tiller in the Senate where he has been a fixture for decades.
Currently, he is the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, where the influence he wields is substantial. He has been involved in American foreign policy for many years. During the Reagan administration, McCain was notable for his support of Reaganomics, as well as President Ronald Reagan’s policies towards the Soviet Union and communist Nicaragua.
Saudi Arabia is a big purchaser of sophisticated armaments Made in USA and was host to U.S. forces during the early stages of the second war in Iraq. However, it did not provide ground or air forces. And since then Saudi sources of funding have been linked to Sunni Muslim insurgents in Syria that are battling to impose a Sunni Muslim government in Damascus: an Islamic State.
McCain has also been influential in the gambling industry, having been one of the authors of the 1988 Indian Gambling Regulation Act. Later, McCain became known as one of the so-called Keating Five for having accepted $112,000 in lawful political contributions from financier Charles Keating Jr. and his associates at Lincoln Savings and Loan Association. He later repaid for the trips on Keating’s private jet.
So, McCain is no stranger to accepting perfectly legal monies from influential parties, in much the same way as do other members of Congress. Money is said to buy influence in Washington D.C., which is presumably why there are lobby groups installed there along the infamous K Street, where brewers, pharmaceuticals, hairdressers, manufacturers, foreign governments and others have offices from which they assiduously seek to influence legislation and the outcomes of elections.
We have the federal government to thank for the reports it requires from legislators of the contributions they receive from lobby groups and foreign governments. For example, a nonprofit tied to McCain received a $1 million donation from the government of Saudi Arabia in 2014, according to documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service. While the former naval aviator has but honorary roles at the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University, and the McCain Institute Foundation – its fundraising arm -- McCain has appeared at fundraising events for the institute and his Senate campaign’s fundraiser is listed in its tax returns as the contact person for the foundation.
And while federal law prohibits contributions from foreign entities to American electoral campaigns, the restriction does not apply to nonprofits involved in policy making, even though tied to current serving legislators.
Craig Holman, who lobbies for government ethics on behalf of the Public Citizen watchdog group, “Foreign governments are prohibited from financing candidate campaigns and political parties,” he said, adding, “Funding the lawmakers’ nonprofit organizations is the next best thing.” Public Citizen, among other such groups, is critical of the current laws governing ethics that gives Saudi Arabia and other wealthy interests the means to fork over big money to influential politicos.
It is the Clinton Foundation, said Holman, that may have started the ball rolling for foreign governments to donate to nonprofits tied to politicians. The Clinton Foundation gets donations from countries such as Australia, Norway, Saudi Arabia and Sweden. Statements released by the Clinton Foundation contend that those donations did not influence Hillary Clinton during his stint as Secretary of State in the Obama administration.
According to Michael Walsh of PJMedia, the revelation of the donation by the Saudi government to the McCain Institute Foundation may be the first instance of such a donation to a member of Congress. But it was only after Bloomberg News inquired that the 2014 from the Saudi embassy that the donation was revealed. The Institute had not originally disclosed it, but updated its website to note that it had received in excess of $100,000 from the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia. It was the IRS documents that showed that it was $1 million that changed hands.
It is money such as this that deserves discussion and debate by Americans as they consider the various presidential candidates. A good question to start discussion might be the following:
"Senator/Representative: what does a foreign government expect in return for a $1 million donation?"
"Sir/Madame: given that a public official must avoid even perceived corruption, is it not better to avoid any donations whatsoever for any purpose from foreign powers and entities? What are you going to do?"