Supporters of campaign finance overhaul cite Enron Corp. as Exhibit A on why change is needed

Friday, January 25th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Most members of Congress run from Enron. Supporters of campaign finance legislation embrace it.

``If Enron isn't a case for campaign finance reform, then I don't know what is,'' House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt said Thursday as the bill's backers gained the signatures of 218 House members needed to force a vote later this year.

The achievement, added Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn, ``shows a majority of the House is aware of the corrupting influence of big money in politics. The growing Enron scandal, and the enormous sums of money the company contributed to gain influence underscores this point.''

No date was set for a debate on the bill, which would impose the most far-reaching changes in the nation's political finance system since the Watergate overhaul of a quarter-century ago. But in comments in recent days, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said that if supporters gained the signatures they needed, the GOP leadership would bow to the wishes of the House and schedule the bill in a timely fashion.

The legislation would impose a virtual ban on soft money, typically five- and six-figure donations that unions, corporations and individuals make to political parties. Most of the money is spent on critical television commercials that stop just short of explicitly advocating a candidate's election or defeat. The measure also would prohibit certain types of political advertising in the final 60 days of a campaign.

Opponents claim a ban on soft money would be unconstitutional because it would infringe on First Amendment right of free speech.

The two parties raised almost $500 million in soft money in the two-year period that ended on Dec. 31, 2000, and an additional $133 million in 2001. As an added indication of the importance of soft money, Democrats solicited millions in pledges last year to finance construction of a new party headquarters in the nation's capital.

The Senate passed a similar campaign finance measure last year, 59-41, capping a long struggle by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis.

Efforts to pass it in the House derailed last summer when lawmakers rejected the ground rules the GOP leadership proposed. Each side blamed the other, Hastert said he wouldn't bring the bill back, and sponsors of the measure launched their petition drive several days later.

While the largesse of Houston-based Enron Corp. is cited frequently as evidence that campaign finance legislation is needed, it had little if anything to do with the ability of supporters to get the names needed on the petition. A total of 214 lawmakers signed before the financial woes of the energy trading company became known.

Nor is there any evidence that passage of the law would have had any impact on the company's bankruptcy or the collapse of its stock and its disastrous impact on the retirement accounts of employees.

Soft money contributions amounted to more than a third of the $5.77 million that Enron has pumped into campaign coffers over the past 12 years.

Evidence thus far suggests the company was unable to obtain special help as it started unraveling last fall.

Still, the Justice Department, Securities and Exchange Commission and 11 House and Senate committees are investigating the firm's sudden financial collapse. And numerous members of Congress as well as party fund-raising committees have rushed to distance themselves from the company, typically by turning its political donations over to charitable organizations set up to help former Enron employees.

All of which has made Enron a gift of sorts for supporters of campaign finance legislation.

``The Enron case is a classic example of how soft money buys access and undermines the public confidence in our democracy,'' said Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass.

Enron shows that ``big money sits in the front row and the average person sits in the back,'' added Rep. Ken Lucas, D-Ky.

``This is the time,'' said Rep. Zack Wamp, R-Tenn., one of 20 Republicans who defied the GOP leadership and signed the petition. ``The iron is hot.