Having it both ways

While Enron's collapse has renewed the call for campaign finance reform, pols are in no hurry to give back their Enron checks.

Published January 28, 2002 5:48PM (EST)

Well, at least one good thing has come out of the Enron debacle, other than a post-Thanksgiving spike in shredder sales. Prodded by revelations that almost half of Congress had cashed Enron checks, campaign finance reformers finally snagged the last two signatures needed to bring the Shays-Meehan ban on soft money to a long-overdue vote. Maybe it's Enron's way of giving a little something back.

Reps. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., and Richard Neal, D-Mass., who provided the decisive signatures, both cited Enron in their decision. "I think Enron focuses the debate," said Neal.

Indeed it does: Are the huge contributors who coughed up half a billion dollars in soft money last election getting nothing for their contributions other than the warm glow of participating in the democratic process, or does that pricey quid come with an even more generous quo?

The corporate leaders who are cutting the checks are, in fact, very clear on what they are buying. Take the persuasive little memo Enron's political action committee sent to employees in June 2000, soliciting "voluntary" contributions of between $500 and $5,000. In it, company execs made no bones about why they needed the money, saying it would help the company prevail in the numerous legal and regulatory challenges it was facing, as well as in a range of tax and environmental issues. The memo was deafeningly silent on the virtues of participating in the democratic process.

Enron, its executives and its arm-twisted employees ended up forking over -- I'm sorry, "donating" -- $2.4 million to federal candidates in the 2000 election, 72 percent of it going to Republicans. The company was so intent on helping George W. Bush make it to the White House, one Democratic Enron employee complained about "the brazen use of the corporate machinery to ensure his election."

But it isn't just the likes of Ken Lay who understand the value of political donations. None other than Vice President Dick Cheney practiced similar spending habits when he was running energy giant Halliburton.

The company was facing a potentially devastating wave of asbestos-related lawsuits. And instead of arguing its case, it decided it would be cheaper to simply change the law. As a former member of Congress, Cheney knew the quickest way to a politician's heart was through his wallet. So he and the company opened their checkbooks, doling out $494,452 to congressional candidates from 1997 to 2000, with $157,000 going to 62 lawmakers who, whaddyaknow, co-sponsored bills limiting the liability of asbestos producers. Cheney, clearly a man committed to leading by example, personally contributed $12,500 to politicians helping push his company's agenda.

Such donations are the equivalent of a soft money smart bomb, precisely targeted to where they'll have the most impact. It is clear that those giving the money know that it tilts the scales in their favor. Even at the height of the bull market, no IPO ever delivered a rate of return as high as an investment in a politician -- and elected officials' willingness to sell off public policy isn't cyclical.

But now, the lights have been turned on and the roaches are scattering. And while continuing to insist that political contributions have absolutely no influence on them, the good folks in Washington can't seem to decide on the best way to prove it.

Some are sticking with the tried and true: deny and deposit. "We're not giving away the contributions," said a spokesperson for Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., the gung-ho leader of the House investigation into Enron and Arthur Andersen, who has raked in over $53,000 from the two companies since 1989. "If they thought this would buy them influence, they've blown their money." In other words, you can bribe me, but if it goes public, we don't know each other.

Rep. Jim Nussle of Iowa is taking the same tack -- keeping the cash and acting blasi about it. "It was not given in the spirit of trying to persuade me one direction or another," said Nussle of the $3,700 he received from Enron, "and it will not be given back in that spirit." So in what spirit does Nussle think it was given to him?

Others are determined to have it both ways, rejecting the notion that the Enron money mattered while falling all over themselves to score Brownie points by getting rid of it.

Among those playing "Take Back the Money" are Sens. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, Sam Brownback, R-Kan., Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Senate candidate Liddy Dole and both national parties.

This rush to refund raises the question: If the money didn't buy influence, why the mad scramble to return it? And where is the payback money coming from -- new donations? If so, what makes these new donations any purer than Enron's? And, come to think of it, isn't that how Charles Ponzi's original scheme worked?

"To destroy this invisible government," wrote Theodore Roosevelt nearly a century ago, "to befoul the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day."

Roosevelt was the driving force behind the ban on corporate donations that was enacted in 1907 -- a law the current soft money loophole makes a mockery of. Closing it won't put an end to the "unholy alliance" at the heart of the Enron debacle. But it's a start -- and an important one.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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