Enron and Our Putrid Campaign Finance System

In the wake of the collapse of Enron and the disclosure of the company's political contributions and close ties to prominent government officials, many reports have been focused on the prospect of untoward -- or even illegal -- behavior on the part of elected officials. Many are calling for officeholders to return Enron contributions, and some officials have already done so.

The implication is that otherwise objective representatives, senators, senior Bush administration officials, and even the president himself may have provided inappropriate favors for Enron in exchange for large campaign contributions.

Investigators sleuthing for evidence of personal corruption in this case may or may not find what they're looking for. But those that end their search there are missing the forest for the trees.

Focusing on the sale of access to or influence on decision-makers masks a much more profound influence of wealth on our political system. It is much more instructive to consider the effects of money on elections than on politicians. The biggest scandal here is not personal corruption -- it's systemic corruption. It's how the very wealthy decide who gets to run for office in the first place -- and then who wins. Through large contributions, Enron, Andersen, and their executives helped put their supporters into office.

Recent reporting has brought to light one example of Enron's successful control of elections. Brody Mullins in Congress Daily has demonstrated that Kenneth Lay recruited Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee to challenge former Rep. Craig Washington in 1994. Lay took issue with Washington's vote against NAFTA and sought to replace him with someone more sympathetic to his "free trade" principles. According to Mullins, "Enron and its employees pumped $24,000 into Jackson Lee's campaign, helping her raise nearly $600,000 -- three times as much as Washington raised for his previous re-election."

The result was an overwhelming victory for Jackson Lee in the Democratic primary and an easy win in the general election. This is a perfect example of how large, early, hard-money contributions are decisive in most elections.

Representative Jackson Lee might never have granted any access to any Enron lobbyist, or returned a single phone call. However, as a result of their political contributions, Enron was able to change the vote of the 18th district of Texas from an anti-NAFTA position to a pro-NAFTA position. Their money did buy the result they wanted, even though there may never have been a quid pro quo with Representative Jackson Lee.

Likewise, the $1.2 million in soft money to the Republican party and the $113,800 that Enron gave directly to the George W. Bush campaign played a role in determining the outcome of the presidential election. President Bush and Vice President Cheney may not have behaved any differently due to Enron's contributions, but they might not be in office at all had they not received them.

This is why the campaign finance system taints every member of Congress and the White House. While each individual representative may hold true to his or her own position and not feel at all "compromised" in terms of his or her own personal integrity, none can dispute that campaign contributions got him or her elected in the first place. In the case of Enron, 259 members of Congress won their seats in part because Enron found their positions palatable to its corporate agenda.

Reformers who merely call for members to give back their contributions are missing the larger point. Much of the damage has already been done. The impact of the contribution happened long ago at the ballot box, and this cannot be undone.

Unfortunately, the efforts of Shays-Meehan [campaign finance legislation] supporters are misplaced. The legislation takes aim at the problem of personal corruption, but by doubling individual contribution limits it strengthens the stranglehold of wealthy executives -- like those at Enron and Andersen -- on our political system as a whole.

Exchanging a partial soft money ban for increased hard money contribution limits is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Congress must hold the line on contribution limits and reject this unholy compromise... or they will truly be missing the forest for the trees.

Those that sense something is afoul with our campaign finance system are correct. However, the stench isn't coming from a few bad actors trading favors for contributions. The whole system is rotten when moneyed interests control our elections through the use of hard and soft money campaign contributions.

Adam Lioz is the democracy advocate at U.S. PIRG, the national lobby office for the state Public Interest Research Groups. PIRGs are non-profit, non-partisan public interest advocacy organizations.

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