Enron fiasco makes case for campaign finance law

January 14, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- For all the furor over the meetings of embattled Enron officials with President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other Bush administration officials, it's too early to say, as the Democrats claim, that the country is dealing with another Watergate affair or even another Whitewater.

Important business leaders are forever phoning high government officials from the president on down, seeking help of one sort or another. In the Republican Party particularly, it's a routine thing in light of the many philosophical viewpoints shared. So it's not surprising that their calls aren't put on hold.

The obvious question is whether in the energy conglomerate's bankruptcy peril, it bought government intervention or relief, and that has yet to be established. At the same time, to make the case you don't need the kind of brazen bribery that occurred when Vice President Spiro T. Agnew accepted cash in brown paper bags in his office from Maryland contractors in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The indecent amount of contributions Enron chairman Kenneth Lay and other company officials made to Bush campaigns and the GOP in Texas and to the 2000 presidential election, said to be more than $500,000, certainly didn't hurt in gaining them entry to the highest enclaves of power at a critical time.

Even the frequently obtuse Bush attorney general, John Ashcroft, could see the sheriff coming when he quickly recused himself from his Justice Department's investigation of Enron's astonishing stock plunge and collapse, with top executives selling early and leaving thousands of grunt-level employees holding the bag. Mr. Ashcroft, according to federal election records, got $54,499 in campaign contributions from Mr. Lay and other Enron officials in his failed 2000 campaign for re-election to the Senate.

The admission of Enron's high-profile auditing firm, Arthur Andersen, that it had destroyed a "significant" number of documents dealing with Enron has understandably attracted the interest of the Securities and Exchange Commission and congressional investigators, which could lead to disclosures very damaging both to Enron and the Bush administration.

But for now, enough is already known to reinforce the argument of the bipartisan campaign finance reformers who still dangle on the brink of passing modest legislation that would ban unregulated "soft" money of the sort Mr. Lay and other Enron officials shoveled into Bush campaign coffers in 2000.

With the Senate version sponsored by Republican John McCain and Democrat Russ Feingold already passed, the House counterpart by Republican Chris Shays and Democrat Marty Meehan is only an eyelash away from approval as well, blocked by the transparent parliamentary stonewalling of House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Mr. Hastert's maneuver last year of calling up the Shays-Meehan bill on a rule designed to shred the bill obliged the supporters to vote down the rule. Mr. Hastert then refused to accept an alternative rule, forcing the supporters to push for a petition in the House to discharge the bill from the Rules Committee and bring it up for a vote without the Hastert mischief attached.

The petition quickly obtained about 210 of the 218 names required to do so, but summer adjournment and then Sept. 11 stalled the effort. After Congress passed a campaign election reform bill last month, however, four more signers came forward and a fifth has pledged to sign to put the petition over the top. So the magic number is down to three, with the House returning on Jan. 23.

If the Enron matter is not enough to achieve a breakthrough, it's difficult to imagine what will be. Several Republicans who voted for Shays-Meehan in the past but balked at bucking Mr. Hastert last year are the obvious targets to feel the heat of the influence-peddling implications of the Enron contributions.

"Enron is a textbook study on money's influence in Washington," Mr. Meehan says. "It's compelling evidence of why we need campaign finance reform."

The current furor over Enron contacts with high Bush officials may be, as the Democrats insist and hope, just the tip of a huge influence-buying iceberg. But for now, it already caps the case for Shays-Meehan with no further delay. And under existing circumstances, Mr. Bush would be hard-pressed to avoid signing it.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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