As the House of Representatives was about to begin debating a modest campaign finance reform bill, former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay was taking the Fifth before the Senate commerce committee. As the disgraced exec sat grim-faced at the witness table, Democratic Senator Fritz Hollings, chairman of the committee, used the nickname George W. Bush once conferred upon Lay, noting that there is “no better example than Kenny Boy of cash-and-carry government.” Lay and Enron dumped millions of dollars into the political system–in hard-money contributions to candidates and soft-money donations to political parties–and spent millions more to hire politically wired lobbyists (including Republican Party chairman Marc Racicot) and to snag high-profile opinion leaders (like Bush economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey) as consultants. Executives were coerced to cut campaign checks to Bush and other politicians, Republican and Democrat. The goal was to game the system in Enron’s favor–in regulatory agencies, in Congress, in state capitals, in the White House.
Enron, of course, was not unique in this regard. Why else would corporate executives invest millions in candidates and parties? If they’re not receiving a return, shareholders should sue. (Enron may well have received favors from federal and state officials in the months and years before the company started collapsing and became too controversial to assist; the various Enron inquiries on Capitol Hill should be digging into this.) And the system seems to be working fine for most donors and the recipients, for the flow of money keeps increasing. In 2001 the two parties bagged $151 million in soft money–the large unlimited contributions given mainly by corporations, unions and millionaires–almost a 50 percent increase over 1999, the last nonelection year. The Republicans out-collected Democrats, $87.8 million to $63.1 million.
The Shays-Meehan bill, at the center of the latest House campaign finance debate, called for something of a ban on soft money for the national parties–a good move. But the legislation, similar to the McCain-Feingold bill in the Senate, still contained soft-money loopholes and, just as unfortunate, raised the limits on certain hard-money donations. If Shays-Meehan had been enacted years ago, it would have done little to slow down the Enron racketeers. That’s why it’s important for the debate to move beyond Shays-Meehan/McCain-Feingold. The long-term solution must be a system of public finance in which candidates can receive most of their campaign dollars in clean money, that is, funds that come from the no quid/no quo public till rather than the private pockets of the rent-a-politician crowd. The first run of clean-money systems in Maine and Arizona showed that such an alternative can work: There were more contested races, more women and minorities running and a more level playing field. The vast majority of both states’ legislators and statewide officials will run “clean” this year, and it looks as though the Massachusetts Supreme Court will force the implementation of that state’s clean election law for this year’s election. Legislation is advancing in several other states.
In the past few years, the reform debate in Washington has been too modest. The authors of the reform bills deserve credit for pushing against a mighty tide of self-interest, but Enron shows how far special interests will go to rig the system. True reform has to go as far.