For Enron, Washington May Have Been a Bad Investment

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Half the House of Representatives. Three-quarters of the Senate. The head of the Justice Department. And of course the president and vice-president. Kenneth Lay and Enron have sent a total of $5.7 million from Houston to Washington since 1989, $4.1 million of it to the business-friendly Republicans — and $623,000, over the course of his political career, to George W. Bush alone. (And that's only at the national level — Texas attorney general John Cornyn has had to join the mass recusals because he'd received $158,000 for his own campaigns.)

"We're all tainted by the millions and millions of dollars that were contributed by Enron executives," John McCain — just the man you'd expect to be up in arms about this sort of thing — told CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday. McCain then acknowledged receiving $9,500 from Enron in two campaigns.

Calling roll

Of course Enron's tentacles aren't just about the Republicans — Enron wrote checks to Senate Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman and energy-state centrist John Breaux, among others — and they aren't just about political cash. Bush Administration officials with other financial ties to Enron include former stockholder Karl Rove, former advisory board members Larry Lindsey and Robert Zoellick, former lobbyist Marc Racicot and former executive Thomas White Jr. (he's Secretary of the Army). And Robert Rubin, the Democrats' economic ombudsman — but also a big shot at Enron-exposed Citigroup — is on the hook for making his own help-me call to Treasury in November.

Oh — and then there's the entire office of the U.S. Attorney in Houston, recusing itself for going to too many company barbecues or something, and local District Court Judge Lee Rosenthal, recusing herself (after ruling against seizing the proceeds of Enron execs' puzzlingly well-timed stock sales) for being related to Enron through Bush consigliere James Baker — and for being a stockholder herself. And don't get us started on Wall Street.

But we digress. McCain, to his credit, has never been shy about admitting he swims in the same campaign-finance cesspool as everybody else. But this time around — and pending discovery that the entire Bush Administration has been lying through its gritted teeth for the past week — Washington, for once, may come out of this mess smelling better than the men who wrote the checks. How "tainted" the recipients of Enron's political largesse feel is up to them. But there may be a lesson in how, apparently, Enron's lavish investment in campaign finance seems to have run up against the limits of its return.

The diminishing returns of lawmakers

Here's what Kenneth Lay appears to have gotten for his money (and friendship) with this White House. A seat at the table for Dick Cheney's energy-policy formulations — OK, six seats — and the grace of the Enron-friendly energy policy that resulted. Possibly veto power over the head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — former chief Curtis Hebert Jr. says Bush replaced him not long after Hebert declined Lay's demand for a friendlier stance toward energy deregulation. And a very big black book.

And that's about it. Kenneth Lay, when he was king of the futuristic energy-trading field his company pioneered, got for his investment what super-rich business leaders have been getting from politicians since the Rockefellers and the Carnegies — the ear of powerful pols.

But when Enron needed rescuing as it began to collapse under its own debt and mismanagement? Again, if the Bush Administration is telling the truth, all those phone numbers — Paul O'Neill's, Don Evans', Alan Greenspan's — turned up absolutely nothing in the way of help. As Evans reportedly told Bush a few weeks ago: "I got a call from Ken too. He was asking me to help, but I didn't." Sunday, Evans told "Meet the Press": If I had stepped in, I think it would have been an egregious abuse of the office of secretary of commerce."

Did the system, in fact, work?

So let's look at the business of campaign finance, from McCain's point of view. Certainly demand isn't a problem — money, very obviously, wins elections — and the supply is obviously there when a company that pays its accountant $25 million can have most of Washington listening for a measly $5.6 million. But by writing checks to most of the Hill and seemingly half of the Administration (and presciently employing the other half while the Democrats were in the White House), Enron effectively made itself a leper in distress. Ashcroft is off the case, Lindsey and Rove will be busily burying themselves in other matters, and Bush's best defense against a scandal will be to make sure Justice's special Enron-dedicated task force makes Ken Starr look like he went easy on the Clintons.

The moral of the story, campaign-finance-reform-wise, may well be that a political donation only gets you so far, and that the friends a campaign check makes you will be fair-weather ones indeed. When it's all over, we may find that this Administration, with a war to worry about and a honor-and-dignity-of-the-office mandate to maintain, did indeed act with particular rectitude in this case despite its Enron ties (or, again, perhaps because of them). Maybe we'll decide that Republicans, who hob-nob with rich business leaders all the time, are therefore better inured against their more inappropriate requests.

And maybe we'll discover that the whole bunch, from Bush to Lay to Breaux to Lieberman, is as dirty as the air in Houston, which wouldn't be all that surprising. But if you're Kenneth Lay, you've probably put away your political checkbook for a while, maybe for good, and if you're Microsoft or Comcast or ExxonMobil you might be wondering if those guys in Washington are worth the money if they can't help you out when you need it the most.

And maybe this is a bit on the wide-eyed idealist side, but the best way to clean up the campaign-finance cesspool might be for the guys who swim in it to say "no" a little more often.