Enron Fiasco Sparks Calls for Campaign Finance Reform

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - As the tale of Enron Corporation's spectacular demise unfolds, some advocates of campaign finance reform say the company's apparent influence in Washington helps make the case for getting money out of politics.

"Its immediate impact on campaign finance reform legislation is this: it just became a lot easier for [members of Congress] to vote for a ban on soft money and a lot harder to vote against it," said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer, a major advocate for a law to ban soft money donations.

"Regardless of whether the coming investigations reveal Enron obtained any undue influence from the Bush administration in the events surrounding its bankruptcy," said Wertheimer, "this is precisely the kind of money that has bought influence in ... the past and will do so in the future."

Wertheimer alleges that soft money given to political parties and political action committees to be spent on campaigns create an "appearance of undue access and influence and conflict of interest." Columnist Mark Shields recently wrote that Enron's campaign contributions helped afford the company "total access," returned phone calls and no regulation or oversight.

A spokesman for Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) said the congressman and Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) are anxious to bring their campaign finance reform bill up for a vote this year.

They lack only two of 218 signatures necessary for a discharge petition, which would force the bill out of committee and onto the floor of the House for debate. Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) has already said she will add her name to the petition once Congress convenes on Jan. 23.

"The Enron scandal is a textbook study in money's influence on Washington," said Meehan spokesman Bridger McGaw. "At a minimum, the huge sums of money that Enron has donated to parties and elected officials undermines the confidence in our government."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a principle sponsor of the Senate-passed campaign finance reform bill and a past recipient of Enron political contributions, said Jan. 11 that the issue "taints all of us, including me, and that's why we need to have campaign finance reform."

But others, like GOP analyst Rich Galen, argue that the evidence so far shows that Enron's contacts and contributions didn't get it much, despite the company's reported requests for help from the Bush administration.

"What did Enron get in return for its donations?" asked Galen. "Nothin,' would be the answer. Nothin' from Commerce Secretary Don Evans, nothin' from Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, nothin' from the White House.

"It seems to me," Galen said, "that this is an argument against campaign finance reform."

Todd Zywicki, a legal scholar and bankruptcy expert at George Mason University School of Law, also doubts Enron got much from the money it contributed.

"It's hard to determine to what extent what happened was because of the seemingly special relationship between Enron and Bush, or to what extent was just that Enron was the 7th largest company in America," said Zywicki. "I'm guessing [that], given their prominence, had Enron supported [Democrat Bill] Clinton, the secretary of treasury would have returned their calls anyway.

"Did Chrysler get their [1979-80] bailout because they were an important component of the economy or because there was some political connection there?" Zywicki asked.

If a company like Enron calls, he said, a responsible public servant would return the call and an administration should want to know when a major U.S. company is in dire straits.

A new public opinion poll shows that 36 percent of Americans believe the Bush administration "did something unethical" in its dealings with Enron, while another 10 percent suspect the administration did something illegal. 63 percent believe that big business has too much influence on the Bush administration, down slightly from July polling numbers.

Still, American Enterprise Institute public opinion analyst Karlyn Bowman thinks campaign finance reform won't get a boost from the Enron snafu.

"I think everybody in the city is always hoping that will happen, but campaign finance will remain on the back burner as it has for a very long period of time," Bowman predicted. "I think it's a non-starter as far as the public is concerned.

"[It's not] that Congress shouldn't pursue the issue vigorously," said Bowman, "but [Americans are] just not convinced that anything Washington does will make the situation better.

"Also, it always ranks very low in terms of the list of priorities the public has," Bowman added. "People don't think the system will change that much. And if you look at the reforms of the '70s and '80s, the public is making a lot of sense because the system hasn't changed dramatically."

See Earlier Stories:

Nearly Half of Congress Got Political Money From Enron

'What Did They Know and When Did They Know It?'

Campaign Finance Reform All But Dead In The House