Enron's Reach in Congress ; the Company's Deep Connections to Both Parties Renews Calls for Campaign- Finance Law

Article excerpt

As evidence of the reach of Enron's political tentacles continues to mount, the question in Washington may no longer be "Who had ties to Enron?" but "Who didn't?"

Campaign-finance figures show that in recent years, the Houston- based energy company poured money not only into the campaign coffers of George W. Bush but also into those of many members of Congress.

While more than two-thirds of the company's donations have gone to Republicans, a number of top Democrats have received Enron cash as well - a fact that could complicate the party's efforts to capitalize on the scandal in the 2002 elections.

So far, there's no indication that Enron called on any lawmakers to intervene on its behalf in the days leading up to the bankruptcy.

But there is some evidence that Enron's interests were served on a variety of other issues in the past - such as the White House's energy plan and its

proposed repeal of the corporate alternative-minimum tax - both of which have passed the House.

While this may be well within the bounds of the law, it's the appearance of undue influence that could ultimately prove damaging - a realization that has clearly struck lawmakers from both parties, many of whom are hastening to return Enron's donations.

As a result, analysts say the real impact of the probes may be less political than substantive - in that it may reinforce the push for campaign-finance reform.

"What's coming through as a result of Enron is not necessarily what the Democrats want," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "The message that is coming through is that they are all bought."

One challenge, some experts say, is that some of the people whose campaigns have benefitted from Enron's largess are now tasked with investigating the floundering giant and its Washington connections.

No fewer than eight congressional committees are already investigating the debacle, with more likely to take up the issue in coming weeks. Insiders say the investigation will focus on federal oversight of energy trading markets, as well as accounting practices.

The company prospered - and then plunged - largely outside the view of federal regulators.

The probes will examine ties between Enron and the Bush administration, key legislators, and others. Some critics, for example, have questioned the actions of Wendy Gramm, the wife of Texas Sen. Phil Gramm (R), one of the Senate's strongest advocates of deregulation. Mrs. Gramm, as chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, proposed a rule to exempt energy swaps from federal oversight.

The rule was subsequently adopted - after which she resigned to join Enron's board of directors. Enron has contributed $233,000 to Senator Gramm's campaign since 1996, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics. …