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Bill Press is a syndicated columnist, the co-host of CNN's Crossfire, which airs Monday-Friday at 7:30 p.m., and author of the newly-published book Spin This!

Bill Press: Enron case shouts for campaign finance reform

By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services

WASHINGTON (Tribune Media Services) -- As the good book Ecclesiastes says: To every thing there is a season...A time to weep, and a time to laugh...A time to keep silence, and a time to speak.

After Enron, now's the time to shout for campaign reform.

If there ever was any doubt that campaign contributions buy special access and favors from elected officials, there is no longer. Enron would never have been able to cheat its employees and investors, nor would its accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, have been able to cook Enron's books, without the protection they bought from politicians of both parties.

Take the accounting firms first. Three times, Arthur Levitt, who was chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission under Bill Clinton, asked Congress to change the rules that allow giant accounting firms to wear two hats at once, serving both as auditor and consultant to big corporations.

Levitt knew this was the kind of conflict that, for example, would prevent Andersen from blowing the whistle on Enron's funny-money games. But three times Levitt was rebuffed.

Here's why: Since 1990, the Big Five accounting firms contributed $53 million to members of Congress even more than Enron. Their money was spread across the board, to over half the members of the House and to 94 out of 100 members of the Senate, including those now leading the Enron investigation.

Republican Congressman Billy Tauzin, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, pocketed $57,000 from Andersen. Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, chair of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, received $11,500.

Now, take Enron. Former Enron Chairman Ken Lay and his company were among George W. Bush's biggest contributors to his campaigns for governor and president. Enron's corporate plane became Bush's campaign plane. And Lay plunked down another $100,000 for Bush's Inaugural Committee.

But it wasn't just Bush that benefited from Enron's largesse. The giant energy firm also was generous to members of Congress. From 1989 to 2001, Republican Sen. Conrad Burns received $23,200. Democratic Congressman John Dingell, received $9,000.

In the 2000 elections alone, Enron donated a whopping $2.4 million to Republicans and Democrats most of it in so-called soft money to political party committees.

Why did Enron spend all that money? To buy access. And what did Enron get for its money? Plenty.

It's not true, as the White House insists, that there is no smoking quid pro quo. The truth is that, until Enron's 11th-hour appeal for financial rescue -- when it was too late for anyone to help -- Enron got almost everything it asked for, from both the White House and Congress.

From Congress, Enron won defeat of legislation requiring them to disclose investments in over-the-counter derivatives, a risky financial scheme that led directly to its downfall. Congress also rewarded Enron by refusing to close down offshore tax havens and limit the portion of a worker's 401(k) retirement plan that can be invested in a single company.

All three reforms were before Congress. All three were opposed by Enron. All three were defeated. Coincidence? Hardly.

In addition, after intense lobbying by Enron, the House voted to eliminate the corporate alternative minimum tax and give corporations rebates for all taxes paid since 1986 -- which would have granted Enron a $254 million windfall, even though the company had not paid taxes for four of the last five years.

From the White House, Enron won even more special treatment. Bear with me. The list is long.

Following its generosity to Bush, Enron received: six secret meetings with Dick Cheney's energy task force; a one-on-one meeting between Cheney and Ken Lay; a say in the selection of candidates for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, including the new chairman; Cheney's personal intervention on behalf of an Enron natural gas plant in India; Bush and Cheney's opposition to price caps for electricity sales to California; White House support for elimination of the corporate alternative minimum tax; and Lay's ability to get any Cabinet member, any time, on the phone.

Everything but a partridge in a pear tree.

We've never seen stronger proof that Washington today is a cash-and-carry government: You lay down the cash; you walk away with what you want from elected officials. We've never seen a stronger case for campaign reform.

This week, the House votes on the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill. Watch that vote carefully. After Enron, any member of Congress who votes against campaign reform is simply advertising: I'm still for sale.




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