As a self-proclaimed maverick, Arizona senator and former Republican presidential nominee John McCain embodies a brand of politics rarely seen on Capitol Hill these days. Though reliably conservative, with 30-plus years in the body, McCain has forged long-lasting partnerships and personal friendships with Democrats, even siding with them last year to defeat a hastily drafted attempt to abolish the Affordable Care Act, and co-sponsoring bipartisan legislation to regulate soft money in politics. His devotion to the institution of the Senate is arguably as important a part of his life story as his wartime experience.
For McCain, who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer last year, the personal and political are inextricably linked, and his inspiring biography the bedrock of his public life and career. So it comes as no surprise that the Arizona senator’s most significant accomplishments are closely tied to his life story, and show a marked compassion for the lives of ordinary Americans. Here are four of McCain’s major legislative accomplishments.
1. NORMALIZED RELATIONS WITH VIETNAM
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the U.S. broke off all diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Ties were slowly restored over the following decades, and in 1991, the Pentagon opened an office in Hanoi to help look for MIA service members. In 1994, almost 20 years after the last American troops left Vietnam, President Bill Clinton started the process of normalizing relations, lifting a nearly 19-year-long economic embargo against the country. While many conservatives and war veterans decried the move, McCain — who happened to be both conservative and a Vietnam vet — became an unlikely supporter of normalization, leading a 1993 trip to Hanoi with fellow vet and then-Sen. John Kerry.
In 1994, McCain co-sponsored a resolution urging full diplomatic recognition of the country, saying that normalization was the surest way to aid Vietnamese political reforms and protect American security interests in the region. In 1995, the two nations officially restored full diplomatic relations, and Secretary of State Warren Christopher traveled to Hanoi to open a U.S. embassy there.
2. LEADER IN THE FIGHT FOR CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM
The Keating Five may not have as large a cultural footprint as, say, Watergate, but it was among the bigger political scandals of the late 1980s. In 1987, a group of five senators, among them McCain, were accused of improperly intervening on behalf of financier Charles H. Keating Jr., chairman of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, which was the target of an investigation by federal regulators. Lincoln collapsed in 1989, leading to the loss of $3.4 billion dollars of taxpayer money, calling attention to the substantial political contributions Keating made to each of the senators who had previously shielded him from being investigated.
Though the Senate Ethics Committee ultimately cleared McCain of acting improperly (he was criticized for exercising “poor judgment”), the episode had a lasting impact on McCain, who became a leader in the fight for campaign finance reform. McCain went on to partner with a democratic senator, Russ Feingold, to enact a signature bill, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 — commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Act — to rein in the vast amounts of money swirling around politics. Though much of the regulatory muscle of the bill was stripped by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, the legislation still stands as one of McCain’s most important legislative accomplishments.
3. SPONSORED THE DETAINEE TREATMENT ACT OF 2005
If nothing else, McCain understands the hell that torture visits on a body, having spent nearly six years as a POW in Vietnam. This experience lent him credence as a powerful voice in Congress against the use of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding. After 9/11, his position on torture pitted McCain against the Bush administration, as Bush’s war on terror relied on techniques that many critics, including McCain, considered torture.
In 2005, McCain sponsored the Detainee Treatment Act as an amendment to a defense spending bill, demanding that the CIA adhere to the Army’s interrogation procedures, which explicitly prohibit the inhumane treatment of prisoners, including those at Guantanamo Bay.
This issue is once again front-page news, with President Trump’s recent nomination of Gina Haspel as CIA director. Haspel has been accused of overseeing a secret CIA detention facility in Thailand where detainees were waterboarded, and then subsequently destroying videotaped evidence of such interrogation sessions. McCain urged Congress to reject Haspel’s nomination, stating that “Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing,” and “her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying,” though Haspel was eventually confirmed 54-45.
4. UNLIKELY SAVIOR OF OBAMACARE
McCain was opposed to 2009’s landmark Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), voting no on the original bill, and supporting subsequent motions and amendments to weaken or replace it. But in 2017, just days after the Arizona senator revealed that he had a malignant brain tumor, McCain voted no on a Republican-led effort to repeal the ACA, saying that the Better Care Reconciliation Act (i.e. the “skinny repeal” bill), would have destabilized insurance markets and possibly led to deep Medicaid cuts. (Arizona state officials had estimated that the BCRA would have cost Arizona’s Medicaid program $7.1 billion by the end of 2026.)
McCain’s vote, which stunned many of his colleagues and effectively killed the bill, was less an endorsement of Obamacare than it was a rebuke of the way that the bill was being rushed to passage without proper debate and a CBO score. In his Senate floor speech, McCain called for bipartisan health-reform legislation that was the product of “regular order,” where legislation goes through a transparent committee process and both parties are able to work on it.
McCain also voted no on the subsequent Graham-Cassidy proposal, which would have weakened or eliminated the rule that insurance companies need to cover patients with pre-existing conditions. “We should not be content to pass health care legislation on a party-line basis,” McCain said in a statement on the proposal. “The issue is too important, and too many lives are at risk, for us to leave the American people guessing from one election to the next whether and how they will acquire health insurance. A bill of this impact requires a bipartisan approach.”
Update: Sen. John McCain passed away on August 25, 2018, at his home in Arizona. He is survived by his wife and seven children.